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Torsten Nils Wiesel (b. June 3, 1924) was a Swedish co-recipient with David H. Hubel of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for their discoveries concerning information processing in the visual system; the prize was shared with Roger W. Sperry for his independent research on the cerebral hemispheres.
The Hubel and Wiesel experiments greatly expanded the scientific knowledge of sensory processing. In one experiment, done in 1959, they inserted a microelectrode into the primary visual cortex of an anesthetized cat. They then projected patterns of light and dark on a screen in front of the cat. They found that some neurons fired rapidly when presented with lines at one angle, while others responded best to another angle. They called these neurons "simple cells." Still other neurons, which they termed "complex cells," responded best to lines of a certain angle moving in one direction. These studies showed how the visual system builds an image from simple stimuli into more complex representations (Goldstein, 2001).
Hubel and Wiesel received the Nobel Prize for their work on ocular dominance columns in the 1960s and 1970s. By depriving baby kittens from using one eye, they showed that columns in the primary visual cortex receiving inputs from the other eye took over the areas that would normally receive input from the deprived eye. These kittens also did not develop areas receiving input from both eyes, a feature needed for binocular vision. Hubel and Wiesel's experiments showed that the ocular dominance develops irreversibly early in childhood development. These studies opened the door for the understanding and treatment of childhood cataracts and strabismus. They were also important in the study of cortical plasticity (Goldstein, 2001).
Wiesel was born in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1924, the youngest of five children. In 1947, he began his scientific career in Carl Gustav Bernhard's laboratory at the Karolinska Institute, where he received his medical degree in 1954. He went on to teach in the Institute's department of physiology and worked in the child psychiatry unit of the Karolinska Hospital. In 1955, he moved to the United States to work at Johns Hopkins University under Stephen Kuffler. Wiesel began a fellowship in ophthalmology, and in 1958 he became an assistant professor. That same year, he met David Hubel and began a collaboration that lasted over twenty years. In 1959 Wiesel and Hubel moved to Harvard University. Wiesel became an instructor in pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, beginning a 24-year career with the university. He became professor in the new department of neurobiology in 1968 and its chair in 1971.
In 1983, Wiesel joined the faculty of Rockefeller University as Vincent and Brooke Astor Professor and head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology. He was president of the university from 1991 to 1998. At the Rockefeller University he remains the director of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for Mind, Brain and Behavior.
Since 2000 he has served as Secretary-General of the Human Frontier Science Program, an organization headquartered in Strasbourg, France, which supports international and interdisciplinary collaboration between investigators in the life sciences. Wiesel also currently chairs the scientific advisory board of China's National Institute of Biological Science (NIBS) in Beijing, and co-chairs the board of governors of the Okinawa Institute on Technology (OIST). He is also member of the boards of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the Hospital for Special Surgery, and an advisory board member of the European Brain Research Institute.
In 2001, Wiesel was nominated to a panel in the National Institutes of Health to advise on assisting research in developing countries. Wiesel was rejected by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. This incident was cited by the Union of Concerned Scientists as part of a report detailing their allegations of President George W. Bush's abuse of science.
Wiesel has also served as chair of the board of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (1995-2001), president of the International Brain Research Organization (1998-2004), and chair of the board of governors of the New York Academy of Sciences (2001-2006).
In 2007, the Torsten Wiesel Research Institute was established in Chengdu, China, by the World Eye Organization at West China Hospital, Sichuan University, to engage in basic and clinical research, especially on eye diseases most prevalent in Asia.
Goldstein, B. 2001. Sensation and Perception, 6th ed. London: Wadsworth.
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