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Eyes on the Prize

A man in a laboratory

As Cris Niell can tell you, there’s more to recognizing a face than meets the eye. A lot more.

The eye is the entryway for this complicated cognitive function, and Cris Niell – a new assistant professor in the biology department – has earned a prestigious award for his work in the area.

The 38-year-old Niell, who opened his lab in the Institute of Neuroscience in September, has received a Sloan Research Fellowship, awarded annually to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements distinguish them as “the next generation of scientific leaders,” the New York-based Sloan Foundation said.

Fellowships were awarded to 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers in the fields of chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, physics and – for the first time this year – ocean sciences. Fellows receive $50,000 to further their research.

Niell, who will use the award to support new research projects in the lab, studies how the brain processes images sent by the eye to perform visual tasks such as recognizing a friend’s face or catching a Frisbee.

Scientists haven’t yet pinpointed how these computational feats are achieved by the neural circuitry of the visual system, Niell said.

Niell’s work also focuses on how the brain, in its infancy, becomes “wired” to make these computations.

He recorded a scientific first in 2004 with direct observation of neurons – the structural units of the nervous system – making connections in a vertebrate, the zebrafish. Neurons growing in the brain don’t branch out like limbs from a tree, Niell discovered. The process is instead dynamic, with neurons extending and retracting as they probe areas in search of establishing connections.

Improving our understanding of how those neural connections are made will contribute to research on abnormal connections in the brain that lead to developmental disorders such as autism, dyslexia and schizophrenia, Niell said.

“I’ve always had an interest in how the brain works,” Niell said. “It’s so fundamental to who we are.”

— MC

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Eyes on the Prize

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