Q&A with Wright Center researcher Brian A. Taylor, Ph.D.

Photo courtesy Dan Wagner, VCU College of Engineering

By Emi Endo
VCU College of Engineering

A medical imaging physicist, Brian A. Taylor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Biomedical Engineering and a researcher at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

1. What are you working on right now?

I’m working on innovative ways to measure brain function and structure with magnetic resonance imaging. As an MRI physicist, I design unique scans to noninvasively image tissues or measure physiological mechanisms in the human body. This can include measuring brain activity during mental tasks, visualizing cortical and white matter structures and measuring the quantity of neurotransmitters in different regions of the brain. We are particularly interested in the effects of substance use on the brain and how addiction drives the continuing use of potentially harmful substances like opioids, cocaine and alcohol.

2. What do you hope to achieve with this research?

By measuring differences between a person who is addicted to harmful substances and someone who is not, we can see which parts of the brain are driving addictive behavior and tailor treatments based on the data we collect. In addition, we can see how treatments for substance use are working in restoring the person’s function to what we see in people who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol.

3. How will this research make a difference?

Drug and alcohol use, particularly opioid use, are at epidemic levels in the U.S. Here, we have the opportunity to provide high-quality imaging-based research to help our VCU and VCU Health colleagues who are researching drug use by giving them important data to help them investigate and find the best treatments. VCU has an astounding collaborative environment with the VCU Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies and the Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility that houses a research-dedicated MRI system. Having CARI here helps tremendously in getting the data we need to investigate several conditions including addiction, liver disease and heart disease.

4. Tell us about how you are investigating this.

We use two main techniques: functional MRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy. In fMRI, when part of the brain is activated — by a mental or physical task, or even at rest — the exchange of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood in addition to blood flow changes can be measured. This can then be processed to image areas of activation in the brain. We can also use this to measure how different regions of the brain communicate with each other over a period of time. In MRS, we can measure the amount of certain metabolites or neurotransmitters in the brain. We are particularly interested in the neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, as they are usually altered with drug and alcohol use.

5. What’s the biggest challenge right now?

When people usually think of MRI, it is of a radiologist viewing a scan in order to make a diagnosis. While this is certainly true, there is an abundance of quantitative data that can come from these scans. This quantitative approach requires a dedicated team to carefully process gigabyte-sized data sets for each participant scanned. This can be anything from looking at changes in cerebral blood flow, visualizing white matter tracts or even measuring the amount of fat in the liver in chronic alcohol use. While it is a challenge and takes time to process a lot of data, it is very rewarding and fun to come up with new ways to measure things inside the body in a way that couldn’t be done before.

Wright Center’s Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility featured on VCU homepage

The Wright Center’s Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging facility was featured in a Virginia Commonwealth University homepage feature story about technology and innovation at the university. The section on the CARI MRI is below. For the full story, click here.

Cognitive imaging

When Meera Doshi, a psychology major, learned about the principles of magnetic resonance imaging technology in the classroom, she was left with a lot of questions.

However, Doshi honed a deeper understanding of how the technology can be applied as a research tool while working under James Bjork, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry in the VCU School of Medicine who oversees the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. The longitudinal, nationwide study is aimed at increasing the understanding of how environmental, social, genetic and other biological factors affect brain and cognitive development and can disrupt a person’s life trajectory.

Doshi was able to observe a research-dedicated MRI being used to measure adolescent brain development at the VCU Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging Center, part of the university’s C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

“I’ve learned a lot about imaging and when I learn about studies involving imaging in class I have more real-world understanding outside of scientific articles,” Doshi said. “MRI technology wasn’t something I fully understood before. So, actually seeing it in person was extremely helpful to my understanding of the medical technique.”

Currently, students and researchers overseeing studies in the fields of neurology, hepatology, cardiology and substance abuse use the CARI program. In addition to an MRI scanner specifically dedicated to and calibrated for research, the facility offers interview and physical examination rooms, a medication dispensary, staff to operate the MRI scanner and interpret scans, and other resources dedicated to research.

Currently, 47 studies are being conducted at the facility, most of which are focused on substance abuse, said Joel Steinberg, M.D., a research professor in the Wright Center and director of the CARI program.

Steinberg and his team are currently testing the effectiveness of Lorcaserin, a Food and Drug Administration-approved medication for weight loss, in reducing drug cravings in people with cocaine use disorder and opioid use disorder. The CARI MRI scanner would help researchers observe changes in brain physiology that may be related to improvements in patients who are in recovery for substance use disorder.

Steinberg said the CARI MRI scanner is a great tool for understanding how substance abuse disorder is related to abnormal brain physiology.

“No one knows the exact cause of substance use disorder but we’re trying to find that out,” he said. “If we can figure out the mechanisms of how the brain is disordered then perhaps researchers can create treatments targeted to the disordered brain physiology.”

Robert Cadrain, MRI manager of the CARI program, said the students, researchers and medical technologists who use the CARI MRI have a chance to participate in groundbreaking research that affects public health on a large scale. Cadrain operates the CARI MRI scanner to produce images within parameters given by researchers.

“In the clinical setting, someone may come in with an injury and you are helping that one person, but at the CARI facility you are looking at the bigger picture,” Cadrain said. “You are investigating far-reaching problems such as drug addiction and traumatic brain injury and figuring out the mechanisms behind these conditions and how to fix them.”

Digging deep into data

Aaron Wolen, left, and Tim York, right, analyze data and show others how to collaborate using Open Science Framework
By: Krista Hutchins

July 12, 2017

Hovering over a computer, VCU Data Science Lab Director, Timothy P. York, PhD, and Wright Center Bioinformatics Specialist, Aaron Wolen, PhD, scrutinize, analyze, and interpret the emerging and rapidly growing field of big data. Much of their day is spent digging deep into data in an effort to make research more transparent and reproducible.

“The Data Science Lab is an idea that grew out of conversations Tim and I were having about how the data science movement has produced amazing solutions to some of the most common pain points researchers experience while working with their data,” Wolen said.

“One of our passions, York added, “is facilitating moving raw data to publication more efficiently while ensuring the robustness of the research product.”   York, also an Associate Professor for VCU Departments of Human and Molecular Genetics and OB/GYN and the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, believes this is the wave of the future.

What is Data Science?

Data Science is both the science and art of working with data. The VCU Data Science Lab supports best practices for reproducible research using modern computational tools. The program, sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, and supported by the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, aims to help researchers manage their projects and workflows.

“Reproducibility of research is key to advancing knowledge and maintaining public trust in science,” said Francis Macrina, PhD, Vice President for Research, Office of Research and Innovation.

Collaborating and sharing your research matters, according to York and Wolen.  “These techniques can dramatically improve the reproducibility and transparency of your research, which helps others understand exactly what you did to produce a result,” Wolen said.

So what exactly is Data Science?  According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, it is The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century and according to Glassdoor, it is one of the ‘Best Jobs in America’.  But it is much more than that according to York. The Data Science Lab hopes to solve the ongoing problem of managing, tracking and sharing your research with easy to use storage, data analysis and collaboration.

Open Science Framework

One of the tools in the scientific computing toolbox is the Open Science Framework (OSF).  It is a free, open source application built to help researchers manage their projects and workflows.  “The OSF is a great, free tool that provides an entry point to researchers, regardless of their technical background, to learn and adopt best practices for reproducible research, York said.  The OSF is part collaboration tool, part version control software, and part data archive.

A recent workshop, as part of an on-going OSF educational and hands-on series, provided an overview of Open Science Framework.  The workshop also demonstrated how VCU researchers can use it for securely storing data and materials, organizing projects, coordinating with collaborators and making all or part of their data public and citable.

Workshop attendee, Michael Broda, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Foundations of Education, found the information extremely helpful, “A deeper understanding of reproducibility in research is absolutely critical for education researchers.  The OSF training provided by the VCU Data Science Lab is a wonderful introduction to these issues, as well as an invaluable tool for research management and dissemination.”

Michael Broda learning how to use the Open Science Framework for research management

Roxann Roberson-Nay, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, thought the workshop contained the ideal balance of content depth and efficiency.  “I now feel much more confident in my ability to use the OSF to manage the research activity of my NIH funded grants.”

Roxann Roberson-Nay asking questions on how OSF can track her NIH funded grants

Other participants reflected on the value of sharing data, “to be able to have access to all of your data and analyses, as well as sharing, it is amazing.  I wish I had the Open Science Framework when I started 20 years ago,” Rita Shiang, Associate Professor, Human and Molecular Genetics said.

Laura Padilla and Rita Shiang, right, are collaborating to learn how to manage and analyze their data

Rigor and Reproducibility

The OSF module also falls in line with new National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines for Rigor and Reproducibility.  The NIH Guidelines advocate a commitment to promoting rigorous and transparent research in all areas of sciences…it is key to the successful application of knowledge toward improving health outcomes.

“The VCU Data Science Initiative is a university-wide solution that aims to educate and assist our community of researchers in implementing and sustaining best practices in data science,” Macrina said.

The next workshop, with participants learning how to create a reproducible project from start to finish, will be July 25th, at the Molecular Medicine Research Building from 10 am-12 pm, and is aimed at faculty, graduate students, postdocs, across disciplines, who are actively engaged in research.  If you would like to attend, please register here: https://training.vcu.edu/course_detail.asp?ID=16013.