As part of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Eye Institute’s mission is to “conduct and support 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 and requirements of the blind.”
The National Eye Institute (NEI) was established by Congress in 1968 to protect and prolong the vision of the American people. NEI research leads to sight-saving treatments, reduces visual impairment and blindness, and improves the quality of life for people of all ages. NEI-supported research has advanced our knowledge of how the visual system functions in health and disease.
Vision research is supported by the NEI through approximately 1600 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.
Because of continued Congressional and public support, the national investment in vision research has yielded substantial dividends to treat many potentially blinding eye diseases and other visual disorders:
- Diabetic retinopathy. Laser technology is safe and effective in treating this disease that affects more than one-third of the nearly 10 million Americans who have been diagnosed with diabetes.
- Amblyopia. Atropine eye drops can treat amblyopia, the most common cause of visual impairment in children, and work as well as the standard treatment of patching one eye.
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD). An NEI supported study showed that using high levels of antioxidants and zinc significantly reduces the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD) by 25 percent.
- Glaucoma.The NEI has supported research on effective drugs that reduce elevated eye pressure, a significant risk factor for this blinding disease.
- Retinopathy of prematurity. Identifying a treatment called cryotherapy–which involves briefly freezing the outer periphery of the retina–has significantly reduced this potentially blinding eye disease in premature infants.
- Corneal stromal keratitis. NEI research discovered that an oral antiviral drug significantly decreases the recurrence of herpes of the eye and reduces the recurrence of corneal stromal keratitis, the more severe form of the disease.
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis. Finding that ganciclovir implants into the eye are effective in treating this disease–which affects people with AIDS–has helped to significantly improve quality of life.
- Uveitis. Safe and effective drugs have been introduced against certain forms of this potentially blinding inflammation of the inside of the eye.
- Retinitis pigmentosa. A number of gene mutations have been identified as causing retinitis pigmentosa, which is a group of inherited diseases that affect more than 100,000 Americans. This research provides the first step in developing new strategies to prevent or control these blinding diseases.
- Leber’s congenital amaurosis. NEI-supported scientists have demonstrated that inserting substitute genes into the eye restores sight to dogs born blind with this congenital retinal disease. These results may someday allow scientists to develop treatments that will restore vision to children blind from the same disease.
- Lasers for treatment of AMD, glaucoma, and myopia (nearsightedness). The NEI has contributed to the development of medical lasers to treat the wet form of AMD, diagnose and treat patients with glaucoma, and correct myopia and other refractive errors of the eye.
Part of the NEI mission is to develop public and professional education programs that help prevent blindness, reduce visual impairment, and increase awareness of services and devices that are available for people with low vision. To meet these objectives, the NEI established the National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP), a partnership of over 65 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. The NEI is also the lead Federal agency for the vision and hearing chapter in Healthy People 2010, the nation’s blueprint to improve public health.
The NEI has done much to promote healthy vision and the future promises to bring even more pioneering advances:
- NEI-supported scientists are working toward transplanting healthy cells into diseased retinas. This research may lead to new treatments for people with blinding retinal diseases, including AMD and retinitis pigmentosa.
- Researchers are exploring gene-based treatments for a variety of inherited eye diseases.
- NEI-supported scientists are developing “neuroprotection” methods that will prevent or slow glaucoma cell damage and promote the survival of retinal cells damaged by glaucoma.
For more information about the National Eye Institute, visit the NEI web site at http://www.nei.nih.gov or write to the NEI at: