Cris Niell is an expert in neuroscience, interested in understanding how the brain interprets sensory information and drives our actions. At the University of Oregon, he is an assistant professor of biology and a member of the UO's institute of Neuroscience. His lab has developed methods to study the activity of neurons and brain regions during perception and cognition, with applications that range from childhood development and education to understanding autism and schizophrenia.
Areas of Expertise (1)
Media Appearances (5)
Can a mouse meditate? Why these researchers want to find out
LA Times online
“We think of meditation as a human thing, a high-level thing, but we want to examine the low-level biology of it,” said Cris Niell, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon who helped lead the study.
The team’s first step in this quest was to create a mouse model that could replicate a human meditator’s brain.
They called it, jokingly, the mouse meditation project.
Training mice to focus on the breath, or to spend 20 minutes lying perfectly still for a body scan, was obviously out of the question. But the scientists had another plan.
How mice use their brain to hunt
Science News online
The part of the brain that governs emotions such as fear and anxiety also helps mice hunt. That structure, the amygdala, orchestrates a mouse’s ability to both stalk a cricket and deliver a fatal bite, scientists report January 12 in Cell.
Scientists made select nerve cells in mice’s brains sensitive to light, and then used lasers to activate specific groups of those cells. By turning different cells on and off, the researchers found two separate sets of nerve cells relaying hunting-related messages from the amygdala’s central nucleus. One set controlled the mice’s ability to chase their prey. The other affected their ability to deliver a solid chomp and kill a cricket.
“They’ve found these two behaviors — that are part of something we think of being very complex — are controlled by these two circuits,” says Cris Niell, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon in Eugene who wasn’t part of the study. “You flip a switch to chase, you flip a switch to attack.”
'I think of it almost like science fiction': Cameras reading minds at UO?
KVAL Oregon online
Cristopher Niell's lab in the UO Institute of Neuroscience is chock-full of cameras.
But not normal cameras.
These cameras can, in a sense, read minds.
A way toward unlocking the teenage brain?
Around the O online
"Our technique is like fMRI but with far greater temporal and spatial resolution," said Cristopher M. Niell, a professor in the Department of Biology and member of the Institute of Neuroscience. "We can visualize sensory inputs as they come into the brain, and the subsequent activity corresponding to a decision and behavioral response. We see the whole flow."
The idea, Niell said, is that human brain regions identified by fMRI can be looked at more closely in the simpler mouse model to explore basic mechanisms.
Neuroscientists talk benefits of meditation, mindfulness at symposium
Eugene Weekly online
Cris Niell, co-organizer of the event and professor of biology at the UO, says that the university is not known for meditation research, though that is beginning to change. “A lot of it is driven by students instead of faculty,” he says. As the scientific evidence gathers for the benefits of meditation, Niell says, more people are beginning to take meditation seriously as a way to combat the stress of modern life. “There’s a lot more need for it now,” he says. “It’s not something you have to do for mystical reasons.”
Meditation training induces changes at both the behavioral and neural levels. A month of meditation training can reduce self-reported anxiety and other dimensions of negative affect. It also can change white matter as measured by diffusion tensor imaging and increase resting-state midline frontal theta activity. The current study tests the hypothesis that imposing rhythms in the mouse anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), by using optogenetics to induce oscillations in activity, can produce behavioral changes. Mice were randomly assigned to groups and were given twenty 30-min sessions of light pulses delivered at 1, 8, or 40 Hz over 4 wk or were assigned to a no-laser control condition. Before and after the month all mice were administered a battery of behavioral tests. In the light/dark box, mice receiving cortical stimulation had more light-side entries, spent more time in the light, and made more vertical rears than mice receiving rhythmic cortical suppression or no manipulation. These effects on light/dark box exploratory behaviors are associated with reduced anxiety and were most pronounced following stimulation at 1 and 8 Hz. No effects were seen related to basic motor behavior or exploration during tests of novel object and location recognition. These data support a relationship between lower-frequency oscillations in the mouse ACC and the expression of anxiety-related behaviors, potentially analogous to effects seen with human practitioners of some forms of meditation.
Why does training on a task reduce the reaction time for performing it? New research points to changes in white matter pathways as one likely mechanism. These pathways connect remote brain areas involved in performing the task. Genetic variations may be involved in individual differences in the extent of this improvement. If white matter change is involved in improved reaction time with training, it may point the way toward understanding where and how generalization occurs. We examine the hypothesis that brain pathways shared by different tasks may result in improved performance of cognitive tasks remote from the training.
A major technological goal in neuroscience is to enable the interrogation of individual cells across the live brain. By creating a curved glass replacement to the dorsal cranium and surgical methods for its installation, we developed a chronic mouse preparation providing optical access to an estimated 800,000-1,100,000 individual neurons across the dorsal surface of neocortex. Post-surgical histological studies revealed comparable glial activation as in control mice. In behaving mice expressing a Ca2+ indicator in cortical pyramidal neurons, we performed Ca2+ imaging across neocortex using an epi-fluorescence macroscope and estimated that 25,000-50,000 individual neurons were accessible per mouse across multiple focal planes. Two-photon microscopy revealed dendritic morphologies throughout neocortex, allowed time-lapse imaging of individual cells, and yielded estimates of >1 million accessible neurons per mouse by serial tiling. This approach supports a variety of optical techniques and enables studies of cells across >30 neocortical areas in behaving mice.
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.
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.