Natural History: OCA1

Individuals with all variations of OCA1 have white or nearly white scalp hair, brows, and lashes; white skin; and blue irides with extensive transillumination at birth. The presence of white scalp hair at birth should not be the exclusive clinical criterion for OCA1 because some persons with OCA2 may seem exceedingly fair in the first six to twelve months of life as well.

The claim of “white” scalp hair is not universally understood in some infants because of sparse, short hair, and because of the discoloration that occurs with some yellow-tinted shampoos. Parents may describe hair that is light yellow/blond as “white“. In families with darker constitutional pigmentation, the white hair and skin are an immediate indication of hypopigmentation, and the diagnosis of OCA1 may be suspected at birth. In families with lighter constitutional pigmentation, the presence of a “tow-headed” child may not seem unusual and the diagnosis of oculocutaneous albinism may be suspected only after the ocular findings of nystagmus, photodysphoria, and reduced visual function are noted. Indeed, the initial diagnosis of oculocutaneous albinism may be delayed into adolescence until confirmed by an ophthalmologist aware of the spectrum of its clinical features.

Rarely, children with albinism have been reported to have nystagmus at birth; however, most children with albinism develop nystagmus between ages three weeks and three months. The nystagmus can be very rapid in early life but its speed and amplitude generally slow with time; however, nearly all individuals with albinism have nystagmus throughout their lives. Nystagmus is more noticeable when an individual is tired, ill, or anxious, and less marked when s/he is well rested.

Many years of unprotected exposure to solar radiation of lightly pigmented skin may result in coarse, rough, thickened skin (pachydermia), solar keratoses (premalignant lesions), and skin cancer, both basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma is rare in individuals with OCA, but may occur because dermal melanocytes are present. Skin cancer is unusual in individuals with OCA1 in the US because of the availability of sun screens, the social acceptability of wearing clothes that cover most of the exposed skin, and the reality that individuals with albinism can be educated to minimize unprotected solar exposure. In regions of the planet where solar exposure is extensive and sunscreen difficult to obtain, the malignant cutaneous manifestations of oculocutaneous albinism are life-shortening.

OCA1 is divided into two categories: OCA1A, associated with no melanin synthesis in any tissue, and OCA1B, associated with minimal amounts of melanin synthesis in the hair, skin, and eyes. The ocular features of OCA1A and OCA1B are identical except for the amount of iris pigment.

OCA1A. Affected individuals have white hair, brows, and lashes, and white skin at birth. The skin stays white throughout life in all ethnic groups and invariably burns but does not tan. Skin lesions such as nevi are pink and unpigmented. The irides are blue and fully translucent at birth and remain so throughout life. Nystagmus continues and the retinal pigment epithelium does not develop melanin pigment. Best correctable visual acuity ranges between 20/100 and 20/400, unless strabismic amblyopia adds to the deficit.
OCA1B. Affected individuals typically have white or very light off-white (minimally yellow) hair at birth and develop observable light yellow hair color by age one to three years. The development of pigment in scalp hair is progressive and hair color usually goes through the stages of light yellow to light blond to golden blond to dark blond to light brown, but may stop at any color. The color of eyebrow hair is similar to that of the scalp hair, but the eyelash hair often turns mildly darker than the scalp hair.

The skin color remains white and burns in prolonged solar exposure but may develop some generalized tan. Lightly pigmented nevi and freckles appear with time.

Iris color may remain blue or change slowly in adolescence to a green/hazel or light tan color. Fine granular pigment may develop in the retina. The evolution of pigment in the iris and/or retina does not affect the nystagmus, which persists throughout life but does tend to dampen in speed and amplitude with age. Best corrected visual acuity is usually between 20/100 and 20/200, and tends to improve slowly until the late teens.
Some affected individuals report modest improvements in visual acuity over time; however, part of the response may be improved understanding of the ophthalmic acuity tests with maturation of the child. No longitudinal data have been published to firmly assess the frequency or extent of visual “improvement” over time. It is critically important that all parents of affected children realize that, although visually impaired, children with albinism never lose the visual acuity that they achieve, unless an intervening event such as amblyopia occurs.

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