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Programs and Research Priorities

The research projects supported by the National Eye Institute (NEI) address the leading causes of blindness and impaired vision in the United States. The NEI supports a broad range of basic and clinical research, clinical trials and other epidemiologic studies, and research training and career development in the sciences related to vision.

There are many examples of research areas of overlapping scientific interest between the NEI and other NIH Institutes and Centers. For example, diabetic retinopathy may be of interest to both the NEI and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney diseases. And studies of the fetal alcohol system may be of interest to both NEI and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Usually, NEI is given primary assignment when the emphasis is on visual function or a visual system disease. Primary assignment is given to another awarding unit when the eye or visual system is to be used only as a convenient model system for research on more general biological properties, or when functions of the eye or the visual system are being monitored as only one of many organs or systems. In the area of ocular tumors, for example, NEI is particularly interested in research projects that may lead to a better understanding of normal visual system development or function. NCI receives primary assignment when the main research emphasis is on more general biological properties of tumors such as metastasis, angiogenesis, or neovascularization.

The NEI frequently supports studies using those model organisms and model systems which are readily applicable to understanding problems in human vision. But potential applicants should be aware that, in general, NEI does not fund studies of phototropism, invertebrate light-gathering proteins, bacteriorhodopsin, or Chlamydomonas.

A detailed description of NEI program priorities and funding policies is contained in the site http://www.nei.nih.gov/strategicplanning/. This page describes the planning process and contains the current Phase I NEI strategic planning document “National Plan for Eye and Vision Research”. An update of the plan is presently underway.

The research objectives and opportunities given below are representative only, and are not intended to be an all-inclusive compilation of areas of interest to the NEI. Investigators are strongly encouraged to contact one of the NEI extramural program directors to discuss their research, training, or career development plans. All Division of Extramural Research staff members may be reached at 301-451-2020.

Retinal Diseases

Expand, improve and coordinate shared bioinformatics approaches and resources to analyze and annotate genetics data, including improved predications of potential pathogenicity of identified sequence variants.

Explore the role of non-Mendelian genetics, including epigenetic modifications, microRNA gene regulation, mitochondrial genetics and genetic modifier effects during development, normal aging and neurodegeneration.

Identify and better understand the potential utility of microRNAs, anti-microRNAs and other RNA-based therapeutics for the treatment of retinal vascular diseases.

Study the genetic factors which underlie structure, function, and the biology of disease.

Elucidate the molecular mechanisms that lead to photoreceptor degeneration, including signal transduction pathways, defects in protein folding, ciliogenesis, functional compartmentalization and trafficking. Translate these molecular footholds into therapies for Mendelian and complex diseases.

Understand and model the structure, function and circuitry of retinal neurons. This research forms the basis for interpreting tests of retinal function such as the electroretinogram and various psychophysical paradigms that are used to detect retinal diseases, monitor the progression of disease, and assess treatments.

Understand the role of innate immune responses (including the complement system) in retinal degenerative diseases, and determine how the immune system influences survival or death of retinal neurons. Develop tools and markers to identify subsets of microglia, dendritic cells, circulating myeloid cells, progenitors to establish their role in ocular immunity. Identify commonalities across different retinal degenerative diseases and degenerative diseases of the central nervous system such as Alzheimer dementia.

  • Translate high-resolution retinal imaging technologies, like adaptive optics, into cost-effective and easy-to-use platforms for routine clinical use.
  • Understand how to direct stem cells (ES cells or iPS cells) or progenitors down specific cell lineages for targeted cell replacement therapy for diverse retinal neuronal cell types as well as RPE. Regenerative medicine and cell replacement therapy require further understanding of key developmental regulators and pathways.
  • Translate progress in research into best clinical practices to reduce preventable blindness or reduce the functional consequences of visual impairment.

  Program Director:

Dr. Thomas N. Greenwell, Retinal Neuroscience, 301-451-2020, greenwellt@mail.nih.gov
Dr. Lisa A. Neuhold, Fundamental Retinal Processes, 301-451-2020, lneuhold@mail.nih.gov
Dr. Grace L. Shen, Retinal Diseases, 301-451-2020, ShenG@nei.nih.gov

Corneal Diseases

  • Examine the long-term effects of VEGF inhibition, particularly since corneal nerve regeneration and wound healing are compromised by VEGF blockade. Elucidate the interplay between various angiogenic and anti-angiogenic factors and their resultant signal transduction pathways.
  • Understand the interaction of recruited innate and adaptive immune cells at the site of transplantation and corneal graft destruction.
  • Define the ability of corneal endothelial cells to regenerate and improve techniques to cultivate endothelial cells.
  • Increase our understanding of leukocyte and epithelial cell trafficking in the cornea, and develop strategies geared toward the enhancement of the wound healing process.
  • Characterize the normal regulation of lacrimal gland, goblet cell, and conjunctival stratified squamous cell secretion to identify the dysfunctions occurring in dry eye.
  • Correlate the molecular and structural composition of corneal nerves with their function.
  • Study the genetic factors which underlie structure, function, and the biology of disease.
  • Develop high-resolution imaging techniques to diagnose and guide treatment of common corneal disorders, including corneal ectasia, scarring, infection, neuropathic conditions, and inflammation.
  • Improve the identification of the phenotypic variations in the severity and progression of the endothelial dystrophies, including longitudinal studies of the disease phenotype in subjects with known genotypes, especially when therapeutic interventions are contemplated.
  • Apply new in vivo corneal biomechanical measurement and modeling techniques for larger clinical studies of corneal response to injury, ectatic disease, and aging.
  • Address cataract surgery outcomes for the aging population of post-refractive surgery patients, whose altered corneas challenge the assumptions underlying current diagnostic technology.

  Program Director:

Dr. George Anne McKie, 301-451-2020, mckiegeo@mail.nih.gov

Lens and Cataract

  • Unravel the non-canonical functions of lens proteins. Apply systems biology approaches to lens physiology and pathophysiology.
  • Develop robust, quantitative methods to accurately measure lens aberrations in small animal models.
  • Study the mechanism of TGF-β-mediated lens fibrosis in order to develop effective means of preventing posterior capsule opacification.
  • Understand the regulation of epithelial cell proliferation.
  • Study the microscopic changes that accompany accommodative changes in lens shape.
  • Determine the efficacy of non-invasive optical techniques used in lens research, such as dynamic light scattering, and take advantage of cross disciplinary opportunities for use in measuring amyloid-β accumulation/aggregation, and evaluate its use as a prognostic indicator for neurological diseases.

  Program Director:

Dr. Houmam Araj, 301-451-2020, arajh@mail.nih.gov

Glaucoma and Optic Neuropathies

  • Define the complete genetic architecture of glaucoma.
  • Establish a consensus definition of POAG and standardize tools to assess its various phenotypes.
  • Study the genetic factors which underlie structure, function, and the biology of disease.
  • Explore neuroprotection as an approach for prolonging RGC function and survival.
  • Identify the specific antigenic targets of the aberrant immune response in uveitis and scleritis and determine the role of antigens derived from apoptotic cells in disease.
  • Establish registries and bioinformatics networks that integrate genetic, ocular, systemic and environmental factors to enhance personalized medicine in ocular disease.

  Program Director:

Dr. Ellen Liberman, 301-451-2020, esl@nei.nih.gov

Strabismus, Amblyopia, and Visual Processing

Improve understanding of the roles of neuronal activity and molecular events in the formation of central visual circuits during development.

Develop and improve neural imaging technology and methods for combining imaging and electrophysiological data in order to improve spatial and temporal resolution in human studies and provide direct links to data from animal models.

Study the genetic factors which underlie structure, function, and the biology of disease.

Discover the mechanisms responsible for perceptual and motor stability during eye movements and develop strategies for using visual and oculomotor methods for diagnosing and treating visual symptoms associated with neurological disorders, mental diseases, and traumatic brain injuries.

Develop and test pharmacological and behavioral methods for induction and improvement of plasticity in adults. Translate the basic science of plasticity into effective treatments for strabismus, amblyopia, and other disorders involving central visual processes.

Evaluate the efficacy of potential treatments for delaying the onset or for slowing the progression of myopia, such as lenses that alter peripheral defocus, pharmaceutical approaches, or behavioral methods that harness the beneficial effects of more time outdoors.

  Program Directors:

Dr. Houmam Araj, Oculomotor Systems and Neuro-Ophthalmology, 301-451-2020, arajh@mail.nih.gov
Dr. Martha C. Flanders, Development and Regeneration of Central visual Pathways, 301-451-2020, martha.flanders@nih.gov
Dr. Cheri Wiggs, Perception and Psychophysics, 301-451-2020, wiggsc@mail.nih.gov

Low Vision and Blindness Rehabilitation

  • Investigate multisensory processes and cross-modal plasticity.
  • Create and validate vision tests relevant for the tasks of daily living.
  • Develop new technology to improve access to internet, print, graphic display, and navigation resources.
  • Understand the level of acceptable visual enhancement using prosthetics.
  • Understand the causes and consequences of cortical reorganization in the blind.
  • Identify co-morbidities that interact with vision impairment and their influence on rehabilitation outcomes, and integrate visual rehabilitation models into subacute rehabilitation inpatient units.

  Program Director:

Dr. Cheri Wiggs, 301-451-2020, wiggsc@mail.nih.gov

Ocular Infection, Inflammation, and Immunology

The study of immunologic, inflammatory, and infectious processes which underlie disease pathogenesis and susceptibility is common to all scientific programs of the NEI. Therefore, projects which focus on research in these areas have been organized into an over-arching grant portfolio.

  Program Director:

Dr. George A. McKie, 301-451-2020, mckiegeo@mail.nih.gov

Ocular Pain

All aspects of research on ocular pain are organized into an over-arching grant portfolio:

  • Determine the pathophysiology of ocular pain.
  • Develop new approaches to the treatment of ocular pain.

  Program Director:

Dr. Houmam Araj, 301-451-2020, arajh@mail.nih.gov

Myopia and Refractive Error

These topics span several of the scientific programs of the NEI, and research in these areas has been organized into a single over-arching grant portfolio:

  • These topics span several of the scientific programs of the NEI, and research in these areas has been organized into a single over-arching grant portfolio.
  • Delineate the etiology of myopia.
  • Determine the risk factors associated with the development of myopia and other refractive errors.
  • Delineate the biochemical pathways associated with control of the growth of the eye.

  Program Director:

Dr. Cheri L. Wiggs, 301-451-2020, wiggsc@nei.nih.gov

Collaborative Clinical Research

The NEI supports single center and multi center clinical trials and other epidemiologic and health services research. Collectively, these projects are directed toward furthering knowledge about the predictors for and natural history of visualsystem diseases and disorders and developing better prevention and management strategies for these conditions.

Program Directors:

Mr. Donald F. Everett, Clinical Trials, 301-451-2020, dfe@nei.nih.gov
Dr. Maryann Redford, Collaborative Clinical Research, 301-451-2020, maryann.redford@nei.nih.gov
Dr. Sangeeta Bhargava, Clinical Applications, 301-451-2020, bhargava@nei.nih.gov
Dr. Sangeeta Bhargava, Epidemiology, 301-451-2020, bhargava@nei.nih.gov

Center Core Grants

The NEI supports P30 Center Core Grants which provide resource modules for institutions with more than eight eligible NEI grants

  Program Director:

Dr. Ellen S. Liberman, 301-451-2020, esl@nei.nih.gov

Small Business Research

The NEI supports both the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) (R43, R44) and the Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) programs. Proposals may address any topic in vision research, see http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/funding/sbirsttr1/2006-2_SBIR-STTR-topics.doc for further details.

  Program Director:

Dr. Jerome R. Wujek, 301-451-2020, wujekjer@mail.nih.gov

Training and Workforce Development Officer

This individual coordinates all research training and career development programs which address any topic in vision research. This includes serving as the contact point for information.

Program Director:

Dr. Neeraj Agarwal, 301-451-2020, agarwalnee@nei.nih.gov

Research Resources

This individual coordinates resource issues which affect all the programs of the NEI. This includes serving as the contact point for Research Supplements and R13/U13 Conference Grants.

Program Director:

Dr. Houmam Araj, 301-451-2020, arajh@mail.nih.gov

Last Reviewed: 
August 2016