Nicoll, a native of New Jersey, undertook undergraduate studies in biology and chemistry at Lawrence University, Wisconsin, before moving to the University of Rochester Medical School where, following his growing interest in the workings of the brain he considered various careers, from neurology to neurosurgery.
Then he read a book by Sir John Eccles describing the use of electrodes to record impulses from individual neurons in the brain. That took him away from his medical training for a year to study electrophysiology at the National Institutes of Health. He then completed his medical degree but subsequently turned from clinical practice to research returning to the National Institutes of Health. That led to Buffalo for two years as a faculty member at the State University of New York — working with Eccles.
He moved to the University of California, San Francisco in 1975 where he now leads a research team exploring the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying learning and memory in the mammalian brain. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1994.