National Eye Institute


The National Eye Institute (NEI) conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to blinding eye diseases, visual disorders, mechanisms of visual function, preservation of sight, and the special health problems of individuals who are visually impaired or blind.

Vision research is supported by the NEI through research grants and training awards made to scientists at more than 250 medical centers, hospitals, universities, and other institutions across the country and around the world. The NEI also conducts laboratory and patient-oriented research at its own facilities located on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

Another part of the NEI mission is to conduct public and professional education programs that help prevent blindness and reduce visual impairment. To meet these objectives, the NEI has established the National Eye Health Education Program, a partnership of more than 60 professional, civic, and voluntary organizations and government agencies concerned with eye health. The program represents an extension of the NEI's support of vision research, where results are disseminated to health professionals, patients, and the public.

Important Events in NEI History

August 16, 1968—Public Law 90-489 authorized formation of the National Eye Institute.

December 26, 1968—The NEI was established.

April 3-4, 1969—The National Advisory Eye Council held its first meeting.

January 11, 1970—Dr. Carl Kupfer was appointed NEI Director.

December 15, 1970—Reorganization of the NEI resulted in the formation of an Office of Biometry and Epidemiology; an Office of the Director of Intramural Research; and a Laboratory of Vision Research and a Clinical Branch as the foci of intramural research.

April 1975—Publication of the National Advisory Eye Council's report, Vision Research Program Planning, was the first comprehensive assessment of major needs and opportunities in vision research in the United States.

April 1978—Publication of the National Advisory Eye Council's 5-year plan, Vision Research: 1978-1982, included review and analysis of vision research and research training in the United States and discussion of future priorities.

September 1978—A Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research was established within the intramural research program.

June 1981—A Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology was established within the intramural research program.

May 1983—The National Advisory Eye Council's second 5-year plan (1983-87) recommended future NEI programs.

July 19, 1984—The Office of Biometry and Epidemiology was transferred out of the Office of the Director and established as the Biometry and Epidemiology Program (now Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research).

August 1985—An Intramural Research Program reorganization abolished the Laboratory of Vision Research and created the Laboratories of Mechanisms of Ocular Diseases; Retinal Cell and Molecular Biology; and Immunology.

1987—The National Advisory Eye Council's Vision Research—A National Plan: 1983-1987, 1987 Evaluation and Update, discussed accomplishments since the 1983-87 plan was published, evaluated the status of NEI-supported research activities, and revised priorities for the next 2 years.

December 1987—The Collaborative Clinical Vision Research Branch was established to provide overall scientific management and administration for NEI grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements supporting clinical trials and epidemiologic studies.

February 1989—The Office of International Program Activities was created to enhance coordination of NEI's international activities, particularly those relating to cooperation with nongovernmental organizations, international agencies, and the international components of other Federal agencies.

February 10, 1990—The Ophthalmic Genetics and Clinical Services Branch (now Ophthalmic Genetics and Visual Function Branch) was established in the intramural program.

December 1991—The NEI established the National Eye Health Education Program, following Congressional encouragement that NEI increase its commitment to the prevention of blindness through public and professional education programs that encourage early detection and timely treatment of glaucoma and diabetic eye disease and the appropriate treatment for low vision. The National Eye Health Education Program is coordinated in partnership with national organizations in the public and private sector that conduct eye health education programs.

Spring 1993Spring 1995—A "Celebration of Vision Research" commemorated the NEI's 25th anniversary.

June 1993—The NEI and its advisory body, the National Advisory Eye Council, produced and distributed its fifth long-range plan, Vision Research—A National Plan: 1994-1998, that contained policy recommendations and scientific program priorities.

June 1998—The NEI and National Eye Advisory Council produced and distributed Vision Research—A National Plan: 1999-2003, that contained policy recommendations and scientific program priorities. In developing this 5-year plan, the NEI and and its advisory council assembled panels of over 100 experts representing each of NEI's formal programs and special interest areas. In drafting this plan, special consideration was give to the purpose, intent, and requirements of the Government Performance and Review Act.

October 19, 1999—The NEI launched the Low Vision Education Program, part of the National Eye Health Education Program.

2000—The NEI was designated the lead agency for a new focus area on vision in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2010 initiative.

July 15, 2000—Dr. Carl Kupfer stepped aside after 30 years as Director of the NEI. Dr. Jack A. McLaughlin was named Acting Director, NEI.

June 17, 2001—Dr. Paul A. Sieving assumed duties as Director, NEI.

October 2003—The NEI published and released its National Plan for Eye and Vision Research. The first strategic plan produced through the new, 2-phase planning process. This ongoing planning process involves the assessment of important areas progress in eye and vision research and the development of new goals and objectives that address outstanding needs and opportunities for additional progress. Workshops, conferences, or symposia in critical or emerging areas of science are conducted during the second phase of the planning process to explore how they might be applied to diseases of the eye and disorders of vision.

August 2005—NIH Director Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, and Dr. Maharaj K. Bahn signed a United States-India Statement of Intent for collaboration on expansion of vision research. View Image. Information on the Indo-U.S. agreement is published on the NEI website at

Biographical Sketch of NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Sieving became director of the National Eye Institute, NIH, in 2001. He came from the University of Michigan Medical School, where he was the Paul R. Lichter Professor of Ophthalmic Genetics and was the founding Director of the Center for Retinal and Macular Degeneration in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

After undergraduate work in history and physics, he studied nuclear physics at Yale Graduate School in 1970-73 under D. Allan Bromley. He attended Yale Law School from 1973-74. He received his M.D. in 1978 and a Ph.D. in bioengineering in 1981 from the University of Illinois. Dr. Sieving completed an ophthalmology residency at the University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary in Chicago. After a post-doctoral study of retinal physiology in 1982-84 at the University of California, San Francisco, he completed a clinical fellowship in genetic retinal degenerations with Eliot Berson in 1985 at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Dr. Sieving is known internationally for studies of human progressive blinding genetic retinal neurodegenerations, termed retinitis pigmentosa, and rodent models of these conditions. His laboratory study of pharmacological approaches to slowing degeneration in transgenic animal models led to the first human clinical therapy trial of ciliary neurotrophic factor for retinitis pigmentosa, which he reported in PNAS in 2006. He also successfully treated a genetic mouse model of X-linked retinoschisis using gene transfer, which restored retinal function in adult mice. He maintains a clinical practice for patients with these and other genetic forms of retinal diseases, including Stargardt juvenile macular degeneration.

Dr. Sieving served as Vice Chair for Clinical Research for the Foundation Fighting Blindness from 1996-2001. He serves on the Bressler Vision Award Committee and on the jury for the annual 1 million euro Award for Vision Research of the Champalimaud Foundation, Portugal. He was elected to membership in the American Ophthalmological Society in 1993 and the Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis in 2005. He received an honorary Doctor of Science from Valparaiso University in 2003. He was named as one of The Best Doctors in America in 1998, 2001, and 2005. Dr. Sieving has received numerous awards, including the RPB Senior Scientific Investigator Award, 1998; the Alcon Award, Alcon Research Institute, 2000; and the 2005 Pisart Vision Award from the New York Lighthouse International for the Blind. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2006.

Major Programs

The NEI's extramural research activities are organized into 6 scientific areas: retinal diseases; corneal diseases; lens and cataract; glaucoma and optic neuropathies; strabismus, amblyopia, and visual processing; and low vision and blindness rehabilitation.

Retinal Diseases
NEI-supported investigations include studies of the development, molecular and cell biology, human genetics, and metabolism of the photoreceptor cells and their dependence on the underlying retinal pigment epithelium; the mechanism of the retina's response to light and the initial processing of information that is transmitted to the visual centers of the brain; and the pathogenesis, etiology, molecular biology and genetics, and treatment of retinal diseases such as diabetic retinopathy; uveitis; and retinitis pigmentosa, age-related macular degeneration, and retinal detachment.

Corneal Diseases
NEI-supported projects include studies of the regulation of genes that express proteins unique to corneal tissue; details of the assembly of corneal extracellular matrices; mechanisms that maintain corneal hydration and transparency; physiologic basis for immune privilege in the cornea; cell biology of corneal wound healing; corneal biomechanics; corneal infections; and the pathogenesis of corneal transplant rejection.

Lens and Cataract
The NEI-supported research includes studies of normal lens development and aging; the molecular and cellular characterization of lens transparency; control of lens cell division; structure and regulation of the expression of lens-specific genes; the impact of environmental insults on the lens; and the pathogenesis of human cataract.

Glaucoma and Optic Neuropathies
NEI supports a range of research designed to better understand the pathophysiology underlying glaucoma, the discovery of drugs and surgical techniques for its treatment, the basis of racial and ethnic disparities in the incidence and severity of the disease, and the development of procedures for earlier diagnosis. Studies include the molecular genetics of glaucoma syndromes; physiologic mechanisms regulating fluid flow in the disease; the cell and molecular biology of optic nerve damage; ganglion cell death; and mechanisms of neuroprotection as a possible treatment strategy.

Strabismus, Amblyopia, and Visual Processing
The NEI supports studies concerned with the function of the neural pathways from the eye to the brain, the central processing of visual information, visual perception, the optical properties of the eye, the function of the pupil, and molecular cell biology of the extraocular muscles. Support is provided for research on the pathogenesis and treatment of eye movement disorders, and the development of myopia. Particular emphasis is placed on studies of strabismus and amblyopia, as these are frequent causes of lifelong visual impairment.

Low Vision and Blindness Rehabilitation
The NEI supports research in low vision and rehabilitation of people with visual impairments and blindness. Examples include projects aimed at improving the methods of specifying, measuring, and categorizing loss of visual function; devising strategies to help visually impaired people maximize the use of their residual vision; systematically evaluating new and existing visual aids; and studying the optical, electronic, and other rehabilitative needs of people with visual impairments.

This page was last reviewed on December 20, 2007 .
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