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Ning Tian

Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Adjunct Professor of Neurobiology, and Adjunct Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Synaptic Development, Circuit Assembly, Synaptic Plasticity, Molecular Control, Retina

Tian Photo


Molecular Biology Program


M.D. Yichang School of Medicine

Ph.D. State University of New York at Buffalo



The assembly of neurons into stereotyped circuits is essential to brain function and the selective wiring of neurons in these circuits provides an anatomical basis for discrete information processing. Loss of the circuit architecture is associated with many CNS diseases including neuropsychiatric manifestations, neurodegeneration and conditions of genetic origin. Thus, understanding how circuit architecture is structured and how its disruption impacts the corresponding function is a topic of great interest for both basic and translational neuroscience. However, because billions of neurons in CNS make many function specific circuit assemblies, understanding how each specific neural circuit is formed is a fundamental challenge. The retina is an attractive model for the study of synaptic circuits in CNS because the retina has been extensively studied and the anatomy and the function of every major type of retinal neuron are well characterized. In addition, compared with other brain regions, the retina is more readily accessible for experimental intervention and the extremely organized structure of the retina facilitates the analysis of circuit architecture. Furthermore, there is encouraging progress in developing methods for repairing or replacing damaged neurons in retinal diseases such as macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. The study of how retinal neurons assemble their circuits during normal development will facilitate in validating the success of these interventions. The goals of our research are to reveal the synaptic circuit assemblies of visual system, understand the regulatory mechanisms of the development of the visual synaptic circuits, and test how these mechanisms are modulated under normal and pathological conditions. Our principal strategies are to (1) characterize synaptic circuits based on function specific subtypes of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) using cell type specific trans-synaptic staining, in vivo,ex vivo and in vitro confocal imaging of visual circuits and 3D reconstruction; (2) reveal the roles of specific genes and proteins, such as NMDA receptors, on the synaptic formation and circuit assembly using cell specific gene mutation, trans-synaptic staining and imaging; (3) investigate the impacts of key retinal diseases on the structure and function of visual circuit assembly using anatomic, physiological and behavioral approaches on mouse models. Over the past decade, we have studied RGC dendritic morphogenesis and synaptic connections extensively. We have also used a variety of methods, including physiological, pharmacological, molecular and genetic approaches, to study the control mechanisms of the development of RGC dendritic architecture and synaptic connections. We found that both RGC dendritic architecture in retina and axonal projections in the higher centers of the CNS, such as dLGN, undergo active refinement after birth. This developmental refinement is regulated by retinal synaptic activity, specific neurotransmitter receptors, and genes regulating synaptic formation and circuit assembly in CNS. More recently, we combined these findings and approaches with newly developed methods for RGC subtype specific gene mutation, transcellular cell staining, and retina disease models, to study the impacts of specific genes/proteins or retinal diseases on the structure and function of visual circuits. The concepts, the techniques, the genetic tools, the animal models and what we learn about circuit assembly in retina will not only help to illustrate how the retinal synaptic circuits are constructed in normal retina and impaired under eye disease, it will also help to elucidate basic principles that can eventually be applied to CNS disorders in which circuit architecture may be compromised.


  1. Tian N, Petersen C, Kash S, Baekkeskov S, Copenhagen D, Nicoll R. The role of the synthetic enzyme GAD65 in the control of neuronal gamma-aminobutyric acid release. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A96:12911-6, 1999.
  2. Tian N, Copenhagen DR. Visual deprivation alters development of synaptic function in inner retina after eye opening. Neuron32:439-49, 2001.
  3. Tian N, Copenhagen DR. Visual stimulation is required for refinement of ON and OFF pathways in postnatal retina. Neuron39:85-96, 2003.
  4. Greten-Harrison B, Polydoro M, Morimoto-Tomita M, Diao L, Williams AM, Nie EH, Makani S, Tian N, Castillo PE, Buchman VL, Chandra SS. αβγ-Synuclein triple knockout mice reveal age-dependent neuronal dysfunction. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 107:19573-19578, 2010.
  5. Xu HP, Chen H, Ding Q, Chen L, Diao L, Wang P, Gan L, Crair MC, Tian N. The immune protein CD3ζ is required for normal development of neural circuits in the retina. Neuron, 65:503-515, 2010.
  6. He Q, Wang P, Tian N. Light-evoked synaptic activity of retinal ganglion and amacrine cells is regulated in developing mouse retina. Eur J Neurosci, 33:36-48, 2011.
  7. Xu HP, Furman M, Mineur YS, Chen H, King SL, Zenisek D, Zhou ZJ, Butts DA, Tian N, Picciotto MR, Crair MC. Spontaneous retinal activity during development differentiates between visual maps for eye of origin and retinotoy. Neuron, 70:1115-27, 2011.
  8. Ding C, Wang P, Tian N. Effect of general anesthetics on IOP in elevated IOP mouse model. Exp Eye Res, 92:512-20, 2011.
  9. He Q, Xu HP, Wang P, Tian N. Dopamine D1 receptors regulate the light dependent development of retinal synaptic responses. PLoS One. PLoS One. 9(6):e100048, 2014.
  10. Xu HP, Sun JH, Tian N. A general principle governs vision-dependent dendritic patterning of retinal ganglion cells. J Comp Neurol. 522(15):3403-22, 2014.
  11. Chen H, Liu X, Tian N. Subtype-dependent postnatal development of direction- and orientation-selective retinal ganglion cells in mice. J Neurophysiol. 112(9):2092-101, 2014.
  12. Tian N, Xu HP, Wang P. Dopamine D2 receptors preferentially regulate the development of light responses of the inner retina. Eur J Neurosci. 41(1):17-30, 2015.
Last Updated: 7/9/21