Torsten Wiesel

From Academic Kids

Torsten Nils Wiesel (b. June 3, 1924) was 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 1954, he began his scientific career in Carl Gustaf Bernhard's laboratory at the Karolinska Institute. One year later, he moved to the United States to work at Johns Hopkins University under Stephen Kuffler. Here,in 1968, he met Hubel, beginning a collaboration that lasted over twenty years. In 1959 they moved to Harvard University. Wiesel joined the faculty of Rockefeller University in 1983 and became president of the university in 1991. He stepped down to become president emeritus in 1998.

In 2001, Wiesel was nominated to a panel in the National Institutes of Health to advise on assisting research in developing countries. Though well-qualified, Wiesel was rejected by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson reportedly because Wiesel had "signed too many full-page letters in The New York Times critical of President Bush." [1] (,0,6847980.story?coll=bal-technology-headlines) This incident was cited by the Union of Concerned Scientists as part of a report detailing President George W. Bush's alleged abuse of science.


Goldstein, B. 2001. Sensation and Perception, 6th ed. London: Wadsworth.

External links

Nobel Prize Biography (


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