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Institute of Neuroscience Faculty

Cris Niell

Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
B.S., Stanford University, 1995
Ph.D., Stanford University, 2004

Research Interests
Function and development of neural circuits for visual processing

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.



  1. Lee AM1, Hoy JL, Bonci A, Wilbrecht L, Stryker MP, Niell CM.  (2014) Identification of a brainstem circuit regulating visual cortical state in parallel with locomotionNeuron. 83:455-66. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.06.031.  NIHMS613439.
  2. Niell CM. (2013) Vision: more than expected in the early visual system.  Curr Biol. 23:R681-4.
  3. Piscopo DM, El-Danaf, R, Huberman AD, and Niell CM (2013) Diverse visual features encoded in mouse visual cortex. Journal of Neuroscience. 33(11): 4642-56.  PMC3665609
  4. Niell CM, Bronin V, Andermann ML. (2013) The New Visual Neurosciences. Werner JS, Chalupa LM, editors. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; Functional organization of circuits in the rodent primary visual cortex; p.409-424.
  5. Niell CM (2011).  Exploring the next frontier in mouse vision. Neuron. 72(6): 889-92.  
  6. Huberman, AD and Niell CM. (2011) What can mice tell us about how vision works? Trends in Neurosciences. 34(9):464-73. PMC3371366
  7. Niell CM and Stryker MP. (2010) Modulation of visual responses by behavioral state in the mouse visual cortex. Neuron. 65(4):472-9.  PMC3184003. 
  8. Niell CM and Stryker MP. (2008) Highly selective receptive fields in mouse visual cortex. Journal of Neuroscience. 28(30) : 7520-36.  PMC3040721.
  9. Cang J*, Niell CM*, Liu X, Pfeiffenberger C, Feldheim DA, Stryker MP. (2008) Selective disruption of one Cartesian axis of cortical maps and receptive fields by deficiency in ephrin-As and structured activity. Neuron. 57(4) : 511-23.  PMC2413327.
  10. Niell CM. (2006). Theoretical analysis of a synaptotropic growth mechanism. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 241(1):39-48.
  11. Niell CM and Smith SJ. (2005) Functional imaging reveals rapid development of visual response properties in the zebrafish tectum. Neuron. 45(6) : 941-51. 
  12. Niell CM*, Meyer MP*, Smith SJ. (2004) In vivo imaging of synapse formation on a growing dendritic arbor. Nature Neuroscience.7(3):254-260.              (* co-first author)
  13. Niell CM, Smith SJ. (2004) Live optical imaging of nervous system development. Annual Review of Physiology. 66:771-798. (review).
  14. Meyer MP, Niell CM, Smith SJ. (2003) Brain imaging : How stable are synaptic connections. Current Biology. 13 : 180-182. (commentary).

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Last Updated 9/19/2014 -