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, 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.


Related Articles

Defined Cell Types in Superior Colliculus Make Distinct Contributions to Prey Capture Behavior in the Mouse.

Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 07;:

Authors: Hoy JL, Bishop HI, Niell CM

The superior colliculus (SC) plays a highly conserved role in visual processing and mediates visual orienting behaviors across species, including both overt motor orienting [1, 2] and orienting of attention [3, 4]. To determine the specific circuits within the superficial superior colliculus (sSC) that drive orienting and approach behavior toward appetitive stimuli, we explored the role of three genetically defined cell types in mediating prey capture in mice. Chemogenetic inactivation of two classically defined cell types, the wide-field (WF) and narrow-field (NF) vertical neurons, revealed that they are involved in distinct aspects of prey capture. WF neurons were required for rapid prey detection and distant approach initiation, whereas NF neurons were required for accurate orienting during pursuit as well as approach initiation and continuity. In contrast, prey capture did not require parvalbumin-expressing (PV) neurons that have previously been implicated in fear responses. The visual coding and projection targets of WF and NF cells were consistent with their roles in prey detection versus pursuit, respectively. Thus, our studies link specific neural circuit connectivity and function with stimulus detection and orienting behavior, providing insight into visuomotor and attentional mechanisms mediated by superior colliculus.

PMID: 31761701 [PubMed - as supplied by publisher]

Related Articles

Illuminating the Neural Circuits Underlying Orienting of Attention.

Vision (Basel). 2019 Jan 24;3(1):

Authors: Posner MI, Niell CM

Human neuroimaging has revealed brain networks involving frontal and parietal cortical areas as well as subcortical areas, including the superior colliculus and pulvinar, which are involved in orienting to sensory stimuli. Because accumulating evidence points to similarities between both overt and covert orienting in humans and other animals, we propose that it is now feasible, using animal models, to move beyond these large-scale networks to address the local networks and cell types that mediate orienting of attention. In this opinion piece, we discuss optogenetic and related methods for testing the pathways involved, and obstacles to carrying out such tests in rodent and monkey populations.

PMID: 31735805 [PubMed]