Institutes and Research Divisions
National Eye Institute


Conducts, fosters, and supports basic and applied research, including clinical trials, related to the cause, natural history, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disorders of the eye and visual system, and in related fields (including visual impairment and its rehabilitation) through:


Important Events in NEI History

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

December 26, 1968--The National Eye Institute 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 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 U. S. and discussion of future priorities.

September 1978--A Laboratory of Sensori-motor Research was established within the intramural research program.

November 1978--Public Law 95-623, Health Services Research, Health Statistics, and Health Care Technology Act, authorized NEI to carry out a grants program for construction or renovation of public and nonprofit private vision research facilities.

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

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

March 1984--A Laboratory of Ophthalmic Pathology was established within the intramural program.

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.

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 ongoing NEI-supported research activities, and revised program 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.

1988--NEI's fiscal year appropriation included funds that enabled the institute to increase its commitment to the prevention of blindness through public and professional education programs and the encouragement of regular eye examinations. These education efforts are part of a National Eye Health Education Program.

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

April 7, 1989--The Office of Planning and Reporting was renamed the Office of Science Policy and Legislation.

February 10, 1990--The Ophthalmic Genetics and Clinical Services Branch was established within the intramural research program.

June 1991--A Laboratory of Ocular Therapeutics was established.

December 1991--NEI launched the National Eye Health Education Program.

Spring 1993-Spring 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 (NAEC), produced and distributed its sixth long-range plan, Vision Research--A National Plan: 1994-1998, that contained policy recommendations and scientific program priorities. This is the latest in a series of national vision research plans that began in 1975 and have been updated at 3- to 5-year intervals. Over the next 5 years, NEI will monitor how closely the Institute's actual program development matches the plan's recommendations.

October 17, 1995--The NEI launched, Ojo con su vision, a diabetic eye disease program for Hispanics.


Biographical Sketch of NEI Director

Carl Kupfer, M.D.

Dr. Kupfer became the institute's first director January 11, 1970. He was formerly professor and chairman of the department of ophthalmology, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle.

Born on February 9, 1928, in New York City, Dr. Kupfer received his A.B. degree from Yale University in 1948 and his M.D. from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1952. He completed his internship and residency at the Wilmer Eye Institute, and Johns Hopkins Hospital, and was selected to train for 1 year as a research fellow in ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute and for a second year at Harvard Medical School.

His interest and accomplishments in ophthalmology are numerous. His research in glaucoma has included studies of the circulation of aqueous humor, histopathologic examination of eyes stressed by elevated eye pressures, and developmental anatomy of the eye. He has probed the problems of amblyopia exanopsia and has contributed important papers on the use of nitrogen mustard for treatment of retino-blastoma, transcorneal electrical potential, corneal fluid pressures and the developmental histology and histochemistry of the neuromuscular junction. He has also studied the neural pathways from the eye to the brain. More recently, he has played a leadership role in fostering the use of well-designed clinical trials in ophthalmology.

Dr. Kupfer was on the American Journal of Ophthalmology editorial board . He was a member of the NIH Vision Research Training Committee, and the Neurology Program Project B committee. He currently serves on the advisory committee on basic and clinical research of the National Society to Prevent Blindness and is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Fight for Sight, Inc. He is also active in several international organizations involved in blindness prevention. He is scientific adviser to the World Health Organization on its program advisory group for the prevention of blindness and he is on the WHO expert advisory panel on trachoma and prevention of blindness.

In 1977 he was given the Public Service Award in Ophthalmology by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. He was elected to the Society of Scholars at Johns Hopkins University in 1982. Presently, he is a member of the Institute of Medicine, NAS. Civil Service honors include the HEW secretary's Special Citation "in recognition of his outstanding performance in the development of the National Eye Institute" in 1972. The following year Dr. Kupfer received the HEW Superior Service Award for "... accomplishment in developing NEI into an effective program for improving the visual health of the American people."

In 1983 Dr. Kupfer was elected president of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, a multinational consortium committed to reducing the worldwide toll of blinding eye disease. He completed his term in November 1990.

He received the Pisart Vision Award in 1984, given by the Lighthouse, the New York Association for the Blind, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to vision research as founding director of NEI.

In recognition of his leadership role in vision research, Fight For Sight, Inc., awarded Dr. Kupfer the Mildred Weisenfeld Award for Excellence in Ophthalmology in 1987. In 1988 he received the Health for All Medal from the World Health Organization for his prevention of blindness activities as president of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. In 1990 he received the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award.

From May 1991 to August 1992, he served as the acting NIH deputy director for intramural research. In addition, he was named the 1992 recipient of the Lions Humanitarian Award, the highest honor presented by the Lions Club International.

He received the 1995 "Person of Vision" award by Prevent Blindness America, the Nation's oldest voluntary health organization dedicated to preserving sight and fighting vision loss.


Major Programs

The NEI's extramural research activities are organized into seven areas: retinal diseases; corneal diseases; lens and cataract; glaucoma; strabismus, amblyopia, and visual processing; low vision and its rehabilitation; and collaborative clinical research.

Retinal Diseases

NEI-supported investigations include studies of the development, molecular and cell biology, molecular 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; the pathogenesis of diabetic retinopathy; the fundamental causes of and etiologicfactors responsible for uveitis; the molecular genetic mechanisms responsible for producing retinoblastoma and ocular melanoma; the characterization at the molecular level of the genes responsible for retinitis pigmentosa, age-related macular degeneration, and related disorders; and, the cellular and molecular events that accompany retinal detachment.

Corneal Diseases

NEI-supported projects include studies of the regulation of genes that express proteins unique to corneal tissue; the details of the macromolecular and supramolecular assembly of extracellular corneal matrices; the characterization of cytokines and cell surface receptors which interact with corneal cells, pathogens, and blood-borne cells; the creation and use of transgenic animals to study corneal diseases; the mechanisms that maintain corneal hydration and transparency; the physiologic basis for immune privilege in the cornea; corneal wound healing; the biomechanics of the cornea; the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which corneal transplants are rejected; and, the role of specific viral genes in the establishment, maintenance, and reactivation of corneal herpetic infections.


NEI Appropriations -- Grants and Direct Operations
[Amounts in thousands of dollars]

Total Grants1
Direct Operations2
1970 22,141 2,20124,342
197432,746 8,88541,631
1982 104,33323,041127,374
19892193,890 37,340231,230
1Includes construction funds.
2Includes contracts, intramural laboratory and clinical research, the Biometry and Epidemiology Program, program management, and the NIH Management Fund assessment.

Lens and Cataract

NEI-supported research includes studies of the development and aging of the normal lens of the eye; the identification, at the cellular and molecular level, of those components that maintain the transparency and proper shape of the lens; the control of lens cell division; the delineation of the structural and regulatory sequences of crystallin and noncrystallin lens genes; the impact of oxidative insult on the lens; and, the role of aldose reductase in human cataractogenesis.


NEI-supported projects involve studies of the gene expression and regulation of the extracellular matrix proteins of the trabecular meshwork; the identification and characterization of genes that are involved in the development of glaucoma; the basic mechanisms that control aqueous humor dynamics; the design of better pharmacologic agents to modulate aqueous humor secretion and outflow; and the roles of growth factors, potential cytoprotective substances, and other nutritive factors for maintenance of outflow structures and the optic nerve.

Strabismus, Amblyopia, & Visual Processing

The NEI supports a broad range of studies concerned with the function of the neural pathways from the eye to the brain, the central processing of visual information, visual perception, optical properties of the eye, functioning of the pupil, and control of the ocular muscles. A large number of congenital, developmental, and degenerative abnormalities affect the visual sensorimotor system, but two disorders are of primary concern: strabismus and amblyopia. These are frequent causes of visual impairment among children which may persist for life. Additional emphasis is placed on and support provided for research on optic neuropathies, eye movement disorders, and the development of myopia.

Low Vision

The NEI supports research in low vision and rehabilitation of people with visual impariments. 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; developing an adequate epidemiological base for blindness, partial loss of sight and visual anomalies; and studying the optical, electronic, and other rehabilatative needs of people with visual impairments.

Collaborative Clinical Research

Funding includes a number of clinical trials and other epidemiologic research projects encompassing single-center randomized clinical trials, multicenter randomized clinical trials, natural history studies, and risk factor analyses using case-control and prospective cohort methods. These projects have the goal of improving the understanding, prevention, and management of visual system diseases and disorders including, for example, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, corneal diseases, cataract, glaucoma, and optic nerve atrophy, the leading causes of blindness in the United States.