Untangling the Neural Circuitry of the Human Visual System

Scientists have been studying human vision for hundreds of years, but still lack a complete understanding of the neural processes that allow us to see the world. Cris Niell, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and member of the University of Oregon’s Institute of Neuroscience, is studying the neural circuitry of the visual system to explain the mechanisms behind visual perception.

“I study how we make sense of the visual world around us—how we recognize a friend’s face, find our way to the store, or catch a Frisbee,” Niell says. “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.”

Significant progress has been made in studying neural development and visual processing, Niell says, but the two have largely been studied separately. Questions remain about how the visual system wires itself during development to create the specific receptive field properties that underlie vision. Niell hopes finding the answers to these and other questions will result in breakthroughs in the treatment of disorders ranging from blindness and dyslexia to autism and schizophrenia.

Since arriving at the UO in the fall of 2011, Niell has racked up an array of achievements, including being named one of fifteen Searle Scholars—an honor that included $300,000 in support— and earning a $50,000 Sloan Research Fellowship. Most recently, he received a 2012 New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The award includes a five-year $1.5 million grant.

The New Innovator Award recognizes creative new investigators who propose innovative projects with the potential for high impact, which seems an apt description of Niell and his research.

A former physicist, Niell turned to biology because he wanted to learn how the brain functions. Working out of the new $65 million Robert and Beverly Lewis Integrative Science Building, he and his research team employ an array of tools and techniques in the lab. Their latest project examines how neurons establish appropriate circuits that perform specific computations. Their work requires an approach that can bridge molecular and cellular development with systems visual neuroscience, Niell says.

“Our previous work demonstrated that the mouse visual cortex is an effective model for studying visual processing,” Niell explains. “And we have recently established a number of techniques allowing us to study the mouse visual system from single genes and cell types up to visual processing and perception.”

Those techniques include using molecular genetic tools to manipulate developmental pathways and neural activity in subsets of neurons. The team also uses in vivo imaging to assess the impact of growth and response and performs behavioral psychophysics tests of visual perception.

The studies, Niell says, will provide important insight into the assembly of neural circuits and its underlying importance to both normal brain function and numerous developmental disorders.

“Having a fundamental understanding of how the visual system works will allow us to treat a range of different disorders that may not seem obviously related to vision,” Niell says. “By studying the visual system and how neurons function and don’t function within various diseases, we can start to understand higher developmental disorders.”