People with albinism have reduced levels of melanin – the pigment responsible for the coloration of hair, skin and eyes – and frequently experience impaired eyesight. A study, conducted by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, offers new insights into the causative factors of this condition.

The prevalence of albinism varies across populations. While it affects about one in 20,000 people in Europe, albinism is more common in certain groups, where it impacts one in 1,000 individuals. About one in every 18,000 to 20,000 people in the U.S. has some type of albinism.

In addition to the noticeable changes in appearance, people with albinism often face difficulties in their vision. They might not see things as clearly as others. This occurs in part because their eyes move involuntarily, a condition known as "pendular nystagmus." As a result, they find it challenging not only to see clearly, but also to maintain proper eye contact while conversing with others.

Pendular nystagmus is a bit like what our eyes do when we look out of a train window while it's moving. Our eyes follow the moving view and then come back to their normal position. Inside our brains, there's a small area that responds to this eye movement. In regular cases, this makes our eye muscles tighten up to keep the view steady. But in albinism, this process works in a different way.

Researchers, who conducted a study on albino mice, found a brain area responsible for stabilizing images that, when malfunctioning, leads to conditions like pendular nystagmus — a disorder causing uncontrolled eye movements.

While surgical solutions aren't currently viable, the result offers hope for the future. Manipulating activity in this brain region could potentially reduce pendular nystagmus, providing relief to those affected by the disorder.

"We show that the nucleus of the optic tract might be the source of the problem. Previous research already suggested that this area is involved in eye movements, but it could not be ruled out that (also) other areas, such as the cortex, cause pendular nystagmus. By simultaneously measuring both the cortex and the nucleus of the optic tract in the same mice, we were able to eliminate this question," said Jorrit Montijn, a researcher associated with the study.

"We now know that there is something wrong with this area, but we still don't know what can be done about it. The next step would be to translate this into practice. One possible option could be Deep Brain Stimulation of the area, but this still needs to be tested, and it is not known if it has an effect. Another option is perhaps surgery or even gene therapy in the future. It is now up to more clinically oriented scientists to investigate this," Montijn added.

Other symptoms

  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Sensitivity to bright lights
  • Problems with depth perception
  • "Lazy eye" syndrome or reduced vision in one eye

How to deal with the condition

Using bifocal glasses, reading glasses or contact lenses can improve vision. Handheld magnifiers are useful too. Changing indoor lighting by putting the light behind the shoulder can help people see better.