Cris Niell

Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
Member, ION

Ph.D. Stanford University
B.S. Stanford Univeristy

214 LISB


Research Interests: Function and development of neural circuits for visual processing

Overview: How do we make sense of the visual world around us? Our brain takes a pattern of photons hitting the retina and continually creates a coherent representation of what we see – detecting objects and landmarks rather than just perceiving an array of pixels. This image processing allows us to perform a range of visual tasks, such as recognizing a friend’s face, finding your way to the grocery store, and catching a frisbee. However, how these computational feats are achieved by the neural circuitry of the visual system is largely unknown. Furthermore, this circuitry is wired up by a range of cellular processes, such as arbor growth, synapse formation, and activity-dependent plasticity, and thus these developmental mechanisms effectively determine how we see the world.

Our research is focused on understanding how neural circuits perform the image processing that allows us to perform complex visual behaviors, and how these circuits are assembled during development. We use in vivo recording techniques, including high-density extracellular recording and two-photon imaging, along with molecular genetic tools to dissect neural circuits, such as cell-type specific markers, optogenetic activation and inactivation, tracing of neural pathways, and in vivo imaging of dendritic and synaptic structure. We have also implemented behavioral tasks for mice so we can perform quantitative pyschophysics to measure the animal’s perception, and we use theoretical models to understand general computational principles being instantiated by a neural circuit.


Vision Drives Accurate Approach Behavior during Prey Capture in Laboratory Mice.

Curr Biol. 2016 Oct 8;:

Authors: Hoy JL, Yavorska I, Wehr M, Niell CM

The ability to genetically identify and manipulate neural circuits in the mouse is rapidly advancing our understanding of visual processing in the mammalian brain [1, 2]. However, studies investigating the circuitry that underlies complex ethologically relevant visual behaviors in the mouse have been primarily restricted to fear responses [3-5]. Here, we show that a laboratory strain of mouse (Mus musculus, C57BL/6J) robustly pursues, captures, and consumes live insect prey and that vision is necessary for mice to perform the accurate orienting and approach behaviors leading to capture. Specifically, we differentially perturbed visual or auditory input in mice and determined that visual input is required for accurate approach, allowing maintenance of bearing to within 11° of the target on average during pursuit. While mice were able to capture prey without vision, the accuracy of their approaches and capture rate dramatically declined. To better explore the contribution of vision to this behavior, we developed a simple assay that isolated visual cues and simplified analysis of the visually guided approach. Together, our results demonstrate that laboratory mice are capable of exhibiting dynamic and accurate visually guided approach behaviors and provide a means to estimate the visual features that drive behavior within an ethological context.

PMID: 27773567 [PubMed - as supplied by publisher]

Related Articles

Visual Processing: Hungry Like the Mouse.

Neuron. 2016 Sep 7;91(5):952-3

Authors: Piscopo DM, Niell CM

In this issue of Neuron, Burgess et al. (2016) explore how motivational state interacts with visual processing, by examining hunger modulation of food-associated visual responses in postrhinal cortical neurons and their inputs from amygdala.

PMID: 27608757 [PubMed - in process]