Sarah Heilbronner, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Neuroscience


Research Interests:

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.
  • 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.

My lab website is

Selected Publications:

(For a comprehensive list of recent publications, refer to PubMed, a service provided by the National Library of Medicine.)

  • Cushnie AK, El-Nahal HG, Bohlen MO, May PJ, Basso MA, Grimaldi P, Wang MZ, de Velasco EMF, Sommer MA, Heilbronner SR. Using rAAV2-retro in rhesus macaques: Promise and caveats for circuit manipulation. J Neurosci Methods. 2020 Jul 12:108859.
  • Monko MM, Heilbronner SR. Some animal models are more equal than others: Cortico-striatal circuits for translation. Lab Anim (NY). 2020 Aug;49(8):225-226.
  • Yacoub E, Grier MD, Auerbach EJ, Lagore RL, Harel N, Adriany G, Zilverstand A, Hayden BY, Heilbronner SR, Uğurbil K, Zimmermann J. Ultra-high field (10.5 T) resting state fMRI in the macaque. Neuroimage. 2020 Sep 6;223:117349.
  • 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.
  • 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. A common neural signature of brain injury in concussion and subconcussion. Sci Adv. 2019 Aug 7;5(8):eaau3460.
  • White JK, Bromberg-Martin ES, Heilbronner SR, Zhang K, Pai J, Haber SN, Monosov IE. A neural network for information seeking. Nat Commun. 2019;10(1):5168.
  • Burkhart JC, Heilbronner SR. Cracking down on complexity in the evolving brain. Trends Cogn Sci. 2019 Nov;23(11):908-910.
  • Widge AS, Heilbronner SR, Hayden BY. Prefrontal cortex and cognitive control: new insights from human electrophysiology. F1000Res. 2019 Sep 27;8. pii: F1000 Faculty Rev-1696.
  • Heilbronner SR, Chafee MV. Learning how neurons fail inside of networks: Nonhuman primates provide critical data for psychiatry. Neuron. 2019;102(1):21-26.
  • Safadi Z, Grisot G, Jbabdi S, Behrens TEJ, Heilbronner SR, McLaughlin NCR, Mandeville J, Versace A, Phillips ML, Lehman JF, Yendiki A, Haber SN. Functional segmentation of the anterior limb of the internal capsule: linking white matter abnormalities to specific connections. J Neurosci. 2018;38(8):2106-2117.
  • Heilbronner SR, Meyer MAA, Choi EY, Haber SN. How do cortico-striatal projections impact on downstream pallidal circuitry? Brain Struct Funct. 2018 Apr 13. doi: 10.1007/s00429-018-1662-9.
  • Coizet V*, Heilbronner SR*, Carcenac C, Mailly P, Lehman J, Savasta M, David O, Deniau JM, Groenewegen HJ, Haber SN. Organization of the anterior limb of the internal capsule in the rat. J Neurosci. 2017;37(10):2539-2554. *Denotes equal contribution.
  • Heilbronner SR, Rodriguez-Romaguera J, Quirk GJ, Groenewegen HJ, Haber SN. (2016). Circuit based cortico-striatal homologies between rat and primate. Biol Psychiatry. 2016;80(7):509-21.
  • Heilbronner SR, Hayden BY. Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex: A bottom-up view. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2016 Jul 8;39:149-70.
  • Heilbronner SR, Hayden BY. The description-experience gap in risky choice in nonhuman primates. Psychon Bull Rev. 2016;23(2):593-600.
  • Heilbronner SR, Haber SN. Frontal cortical and subcortical projections provide a basis for segmenting the cingulum bundle: Implications for neuroimaging and psychiatric disorders. J Neurosci. 2014 Jul 23;34(30):10041-54.
  • Heilbronner SR, Meck WH. Dissociations between interval timing and inter-temporal choice following administration of fluoxetine, cocaine, or methamphetamine. Behav Processes. 2014;101:123-34.
  • Heilbronner SR, Platt ML. Causal evidence of performance monitoring by neurons in posterior cingulate cortex during learning. Neuron, 2013;80(6):1384-1391.
  • Brent LJ, Heilbronner SR, Horvath JE, Gonzalez-Martinez J, Ruiz-Lambides A, Robinson AG, Skene JH, Platt ML. Genetic origins of social networks in rhesus macaques. Sci Rep. 2013;3:1042.

Current Graduate Students:

Megan Monko (Neuroscience, University of Minnesota)

Adriana Cushnie (Neuroscience, University of Minnesota)