Benjamin Saunders, PhD

Assistant Professor, Department of Neuroscience

Benjamin Saunders

Contact Info

Office Phone +1 612-626-5198

Lab Address:
3-418 MTRF

PhD in Psychology/Biopsychology, 2012

MS, University of Michigan

BS in Biology/Psychology, West Virginia University, 2007



Neural circuits of motivation


Research Summary/Interests

Environmental cues, through their association with rewards, can acquire powerful control over motivation to spur and invigorate behavior. This process, while fundamental to survive, can go awry, leading to aberrant motivation that can underlie a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as addiction. The central goals of the Saunders Laboratory are to understand 1) how the brain generates and controls motivation during reward seeking, 2) how these processes are altered in disease states, and 3) why some individuals, but not others, develop motivational diseases. We utilize in a variety of techniques for mapping, controlling, and measuring the activity of neural circuits, including optogenetics, pharmacology, calcium imaging, and immunohistochemistry and microscopy, in rodents. These methods are integrated with detailed assessment of behavior in conditioning paradigms of natural (i.e., food) reward and drug seeking, to identify how brain circuits represent and control different components of motivation.


Collins V, Bornhoft KN, Wolff A, Sinha S, & Saunders BT. Hierarchical cue control of cocaine seeking in the face of cost. Psychopharmacology, in press. doi:

Poisson CL, Engel L, Saunders BT. Dopamine Circuit Mechanisms of Addiction-Like Behaviors. Front Neural Circuits. 2021 Nov 9;15:752420. doi: 10.3389/fncir.2021.752420.

Collins, AL & Saunders, BT 2020, ‘Heterogeneity in striatal dopamine circuits: Form and function in dynamic reward seeking’ Journal of Neuroscience Methods, In Press.

Collins, AL & Saunders, BT 2019, 'Brain reward network effects underlie septo-hippocampal control of flexible decision making', Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 44, no. 13, pp. 2153-2154.

Collins, AL, Wolff, AR & Saunders, BT 2019, ‘Ring of Power: A Band of Peptidergic Midbrain Neurons that Binds Motivation’ Neuron, vol. 103, no. 3, pp. 364-366.

Saunders, BT, Richard, J, Margolis, EB & Janak, PH 2018, 'Dopamine neurons create Pavlovian conditioned stimuli with circuit-defined motivational properties' Nature Neuroscience, vol. 21, no. 8, pp. 1072-1083.

Saunders, BT, Richard, JM, Margolis, EB & Janak, PH 2017, ‘Instantiation of incentive value and movement invigoration by distinct midbrain dopamine circuits’.

Saunders, BT, Richard, J & Janak, PH 2015, 'Contemporary approaches to neural circuit manipulation and mapping: Focus on reward and addiction' Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 370, no. 1677, 20140210.

Morrow, JD, Saunders, BT, Maren, S & Robinson, TE 2015, 'Sign-tracking to an appetitive cue predicts incubation of conditioned fear in rats' Behavioural Brain Research, vol. 276, pp. 59-66.

Saunders, BT, O'Donnell, EG, Aurbach, EL & Robinson, TE 2014, ‘A cocaine context renews drug seeking preferentially in a subset of individuals’ Neuropsychopharmacology, vol. 39, no. 12, pp. 2816-23.

Steinberg, EE, Boivin, JR, Saunders, BT, Witten, IB, Deisseroth, K & Janak, PH 2014, 'Positive reinforcement mediated by midbrain dopamine neurons requires D1 and D2 receptor activation in the nucleus accumbens' PloS one, vol. 9, no. 4, e94771.

Saunders, BT & Janak, PH 2014, 'Nucleus accumbens plasticity underlies multifaceted behavioral changes associated with addiction' Biological Psychiatry, vol. 75, no. 2, pp. 92-93.