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SUNY Downstate Researchers Receive Award from National Science Foundation to Study Restoring Vision

Drs. Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde Will Work to Genetically Modify Brain Cells and Stimulate Them with Light in a Process Called Optogenetics 


Brooklyn, NY – Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center are among the recipients of 19 awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) made to cross-disciplinary teams from across the United States to conduct innovative research focused on neural and cognitive systems. Each award provides a research team with up to $1 million over two to four years. With their award, Stephen L. Macknik, PhD, and Susana Martinez-Conde, PhD, both professors of ophthalmology, neurology, and physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate, will seek to restore vision by genetically modifying neurons in the brain and then stimulating them with light, a method called optogenetics. The award number is 1734887; a link to the award page is here.

The Downstate researchers explain that evoking high-quality visual perception in a blind person, via direct microstimulation of the brain, poses great difficulties. One major obstacle has been that electrical stimulation of the brain typically affects neuronal populations that are mutually suppressive, which subverts proper neuronal signaling. The visual system has two antagonistic information channels that encode either the perception of whiteness, in “on” cells, or blackness, in “off” cells.

Inappropriate coactivation of these two channels results in nullification of contrast, and deprived visual perception. It follows that high-quality prosthetic stimulation systems must avoid unwanted coactivation of mutually suppressive neurons, just as the natural visual system does. This is a challenge because the antagonistic neurons typically lie within microns of each other in the brain.

To address this problem, Drs. Martinez-Conde and Macknik propose transformative advances in viral transfection and imaging methodology, computational theory, and cortical prosthetic neuroengineering design. The expected results and methodology will form the scientific basis to build a breakthrough neuroprosthetic, with transformative potential to further brain research in sensory, motor, and cognitive parts of the cortex, and advance human medicine.

A news release on the National Science Foundation awards is available at the NSF website here. The awards will contribute to NSF's investments in support of Understanding the Brain and the BRAIN Initiative, a coordinated research effort that seeks to accelerate the development of new neurotechnologies. To learn more about NSF investments in fundamental brain research, visit

For more information about Dr. Martinez-Conde or

For Dr. Macknik or