MacArthur Fellows Program

Sheila Nirenberg

Neuroscientist | Class of 2013

Investigating fundamental questions about the nervous system and developing new kinds of prosthetic devices and robots.

Weill Cornell Medical College
New York, New York
Published September 25, 2013

About Sheila's Work

Sheila Nirenberg is a neuroscientist exploring fundamental questions about how the brain encodes visual information and developing an alternative approach to restoring sight after photoreceptor cell degeneration. In the visual sensory system in mammals, the photoreceptor cells in the retina take in information from the outside world, such as an image or visual pattern. This information is then passed through the retinal circuitry to the ganglion cells, which transform it into a neural code that the brain can understand. In the case of diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, which affect approximately 20–25 million people worldwide, vision is lost when deteriorating photoreceptor cells no longer take in visual signals.

Instead of trying to replace the lost photoreceptor cells—an approach that is usually quite invasive and that has shown limited benefit for advanced stage disease—Nirenberg has developed a method for bypassing the damaged photoreceptor cells entirely and interacting directly with the ganglion cells. She crystallized the complex relationship between visual stimuli and corresponding ganglion cell activity and deciphered the specific neural “codes” that are generated in response to dynamic spatial and temporal visual patterns. Nirenberg invented a computerized eyeglass prosthetic that transmits the codes to the ganglion cells, which then send the codes to the brain. Although still in the early phases of clinical testing, this new, less invasive strategy has obtained very promising results in mice.

In another line of research, Nirenberg is adapting and applying her discoveries in neural coding to machine vision algorithms with the goal of advancing the state of the art in robotic “vision” and brain-machine interfaces. In addressing fundamental questions about sensory signal processing in both mammals and machines, Nirenberg is poised to catalyze a major leap in the science of visual perception.


Sheila Nirenberg received a B.A. from the State University of New York, Albany, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University (1993). She is currently a professor in Department of Physiology and Biophysics and a member of the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Her research has been published in such journals as Nature, PNAS, Neuron, and PLoS One.

Select News Coverage of Sheila Nirenberg
April 5, 2016
"This Bionic Eye Could Cure Blindness"
Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
September 25, 2015
"How MacArthur Geniuses Handle Their Money Windfalls"
The New York Times
Andrea Ghez, 2008 MacArthur Fellow
Edith Widder , 2006 MacArthur Fellow
Sarah Otto, 2011 MacArthur Fellow
Kyle Abraham, Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellows
Steve Coleman, 2014 MacArthur Fellow
July 17, 2014
"Interview with the Dean: A Vision to Cure Blindness"
Weill Cornell Medical College News
Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
October 30, 2013
"Lecture Explores Potential Cure for Blindness Through Prosthetic Devices"
The Brown Daily Herald
Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
September 29, 2013
"Sheila Nirenberg: A Prosthetic Eye to Treat Blindness"
TED Talks
Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
September 26, 2013
"New Yorker Trying Cure Blindness Wins 'Genius' Prize"
Crain's New York Business
Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
September 25, 2013
"Fennie, Nirenberg Named MacArthur Fellows"
Cornell Chronicle
Craig Fennie & Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellows
September 25, 2013
"New MacArthur 'Genius' Award: A Pay Raise"
The Wall Street Journal
Sheila Nirenberg, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
Cecilia Conrad, Vice President, MacArthur Fellows program
View all news

Photos for Download

High-resolution photos of MacArthur Fellows are available for download (right click and save), including use by media, in accordance with this copyright policy.

Please credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

More Fellows

View All 2013 Fellows

Stay Informed
Sign up for periodic news updates and event invitations.
Connect with us on social media or view all of our social media content in one place.