A medical imaging physicist, Brian A. Taylor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the 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 (MRI). As an MRI physicist, I design unique scans to non-invasively 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 (IDAS) and the Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging (CARI) 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 (fMRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). 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 (GABA) 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.
Fun fact: Even though I have some physical limitations, I am an adaptive Crossfit athlete. I am certified to coach and help people working on improving their overall health and fitness level.