Cris Niell

Associate 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, visual processing does not occur in isolation, but depends on behavioral state, task demands, and interaction with the world.

Our research is focused on understanding how neural circuits performs the image processing that allows us to perform complex visual behaviors, and how these circuits are refined by development and experience. We use in vivo recording techniques including high-density extracellular recording and widefield / two-photon imaging, along with molecular genetic tools to dissect neural circuits. We have also implemented behavioral tasks for mice so we can perform quantitative psychophysics to measure the animal’s perception, and we use theoretical models to understand general computational principles being instantiated. Recently, we have extended these approaches to study visual perception in the context of natural behaviors and complex environments, in an effort to understand how the visual system function in real-world conditions. We are also studying the octopus visual system, to understand how a completely different brain architecture processes visual information.



1. Michaiel AM, Abe ET, and Niell CM. (2020) Dynamics of gaze control during prey capture in freely moving mice.  eLife. Link

2. Parker PRL, Brown MA, Smear MC, and Niell CM. (2020) Movement-related signals in sensory areas : roles in natural behavior   Trends in Neurosciences. 43(8), 581-595. Link

3. Hoy JL, Bishop HI, and Niell CM. (2019) Defined cell types in superior colliculus make distinct contributions to prey capture behavior in the mouse. (2019)  Current Biology 29(23):4130-4138. Link