Benjamin Saunders, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Neuroscience

E-MAIL[email protected]

Advising Statement

Research 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. 

Lab Website:

Selected Publications:

  • Collins V, Bornhoft KN, Wolff A, Sinha S, & Saunders BT. (2022). Hierarchical cue control of cocaine seeking in the face of cost. Psychopharmacology, in press. 
  • Poisson CL, Engel L, Saunders BT. Dopamine Circuit Mechanisms of Addiction-Like Behaviors. Front Neural Circuits. 2021 Nov 9;15:752420.
  • Collins AL, Saunders BT. Heterogeneity in striatal dopamine circuits: Form and function in dynamic reward seeking. J Neurosci Res. J Neurosci Res. 2020;98(6):1046-1069.
  • Collins AL, Saunders BT. Brain reward network effects underlie septo-hippocampal control of flexible decision making. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2019;44(13):2153-2154.
  • Collins AL, Wolff AR, Saunders BT. Ring of power: A band of peptidergic midbrain neurons that binds motivation. Neuron. 2019;103:364-366.
  • Saunders BT, Richard JM, Margolis EB, Janak PH. Dopamine neurons create Pavlovian conditioned stimuli with circuit-defined motivational properties. Nat Neurosci. 2018;21:1072-1083.
  • Saunders BT, Richard JM, Janak PH. Contemporary approaches to neural circuit manipulation and mapping: focus on reward and addiction. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015;370:20140210.
  • Saunders BT, Janak PH. Nucleus accumbens plasticity underlies multifaceted behavioral changes associated with addiction. Biol Psychiatry. 2014;75(2):92-93.

Current Student(s):

Megan Brickner (Neuroscience, University of Minnesota). 
Louisa Kuper (Neuroscience, University of Minnesota). 
Carli Poisson (Neuroscience, University of Minnesota). 
Margaret Stelzner (Neuroscience, University of Minnesota).


Picture of Benjamin Saunders