Sarah Heilbronner, PhD

Assistant Professor, Department of Neuroscience

Sarah Heilbronner

Contact Info

Office Phone 612-626-4429

Lab Address:
2-164 JacH


Sarah Heilbronner is an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience. She studies the "wiring diagram" of the brain. She and her team are trying to determine how different brain regions connect with one another. She is especially interested in circuits responsible for abnormal motivation and decision-making in addiction. Heilbronner uses these connectivity studies to figure out how to translate results from humans to nonhuman animal model species, and vice versa.


Research Summary/Interests

Connectivity of brain circuits responsible for motivation and decision-making

Understanding the neurobiology of complex behaviors requires linking diverse methodologies, species, and analytical approaches. The goal of our lab is to use anatomical connectivity and related techniques to help bridge the major divides in neuroscience. Specifically, we perform tract-tracing to understand the neural circuits underpinning motivation and decision-making. We are particularly interested in the medial prefrontal cortex and the posteromedial cortex as critical pieces of the motivation and decision-making circuits. Activations in different portions of these midline regions consistently track subjective value, outcomes, and need for behavioral adjustment. Intriguingly, these areas are also core pieces of the default mode network, a set of highly functionally correlated brain regions consistently deactivated during task performance in humans. A similar network is also present in other species. Thus, the default mode network represents an important circuit for motivation and decision-making that can be interrogated across multiple species.

Specific projects include:

-Leveraging cortical connectivity with conserved subcortical structures to establish circuit-level similarities across species. Ultimately, this process allows us to translate neural results from nonhuman animals to humans, including psychiatric patients patients.

-Mapping posteromedial cortico-basal ganglia pathways to answer fundamental questions about integration within the default mode network and the striatum.

-Anatomically and functionally mapping “patches” of connectivity (small zones of connectivity that do not cover an entire brain region) within the default mode network.

-Establishing patterns of white matter organization to improve targeting of neuromodulatory interventions for psychiatric and neurological disorders.


Tang W, Choi EY, Heilbronner SR, Haber SN. Nonhuman primate meso-circuitry data: a translational tool to understand brain networks across species. Brain Struct Funct. 2021 Jan;226(1):1-11. doi: 10.1007/s00429-020-02133-3. 

Grier MD, Zimmermann J, Heilbronner SR. Estimating Brain Connectivity With Diffusion-Weighted Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Promise and Peril. Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2020 Sep;5(9):846-854. doi: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2020.04.009. 

Cushnie AK, El-Nahal HG, Bohlen MO, May PJ, Basso MA, Grimaldi P, Wang MZ, de Velasco Ezequiel MF, Sommer MA, Heilbronner SR. Using rAAV2-retro in rhesus macaques: Promise and caveats for circuit manipulation. J Neurosci Methods. 2020 Nov 1;345:108859. doi: 10.1016/j.jneumeth.2020.108859.

White, JK, Bromberg-Martin, ES, Heilbronner, SR, Zhang, K, Pai, J, Haber, SN & Monosov, IE 2019, 'A neural network for information seeking', Nature communications, vol. 10, no. 1, 5168.

Hirad, AA, Bazarian, JJ, Merchant-Borna, K, Garcea, FE, Heilbronner, S, Paul, D, Hintz, EB, van Wijngaarden, E, Schifitto, G, Wright, DW, Espinoza, TR & Mahon, BZ 2019, 'A common neural signature of brain injury in concussion and subconcussion', Science advances, vol. 5, no. 8, eaau3460.

Widge, AS, Heilbronner, SR & Hayden, BY 2019, 'Prefrontal cortex and cognitive control: New insights from human electrophysiology [version 1; peer review: 3 approved]', F1000Research, vol. 8, 1696.

Heilbronner, SR, Meyer, MAA, Choi, EY & Haber, SN 2018, 'How do cortico-striatal projections impact on downstream pallidal circuitry?' Brain Structure and Function, vol. 223, no. 6, pp. 2809-2821.

Safadi, Z, Grisot, G, Jbabdi, S, Behrens, TE, Heilbronner, SR, McLaughlin, NCR, Mandeville, J, Versace, A, Phillips, ML, Lehman, JF, Yendiki, A & Haber, SN 2018, 'Functional segmentation of the anterior limb of the internal capsule: Linking white matter abnormalities to specific connections' Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 38, no. 8, pp. 2106-2117.

Heilbronner, SR 2017, 'Modeling risky decision-making in nonhuman animals: shared core features' Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, vol. 16, pp. 23-29.

Coizet, V, Heilbronner, SR, Carcenac, C, Mailly, P, Lehman, JF, Savasta, M, David, O, Deniau, JM, Groenewegen, HJ & Haber, SN 2017, 'Organization of the anterior limb of the internal capsule in the rat' Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 37, no. 10, pp. 2539-2554.

Heilbronner, SR, Rodriguez-Romaguera, J, Quirk, GJ, Groenewegen, HJ & Haber, SN 2016, 'Circuit-Based Corticostriatal Homologies Between Rat and Primate' Biological Psychiatry, vol. 80, no. 7, pp. 509-521.

Heilbronner, SR & Hayden, BY 2016, 'Dorsal Anterior Cingulate Cortex: A Bottom-Up View' Annual Review of Neuroscience, vol. 39, pp. 149-170.

Heilbronner, SR & Hayden, BY 2016, 'The description-experience gap in risky choice in nonhuman primates' Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 593-600.