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MPower Professor Profile: Rao Gullapalli, Ph.D., M.B.A.

Inaugural MPower Professor Identifies Imaging Biomarkers of Brain Injury

In November of 2021, University of Maryland, College Park President Darryll J. Pines and University of Maryland, Baltimore President Bruce E. Jarrell named eight professors as the inaugural MPower Professors. This award from the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State (MPower) recognizes, incentivizes, and fosters faculty collaborations between the College Park and Baltimore campuses.  

Selected for his commitment to interdisciplinary and interprofessional collaboration, Dr. Rao Gullapalli is the MPower Professor and Vice Chair of Research within the Department of Diagnostic Radiology & Nuclear Medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He also has an Adjunct Professor appointment at the Fischell Department of Bioengineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. He directs the Core for Translational Research in Imaging @ Maryland (C-TRIM) which facilitates both human imaging research development and pre-clinical animal imaging research. This core is also an integral part of the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center (UMGCCC) and provides imaging research services to cancer center members at UMB, University of Maryland College Park and University of Maryland Baltimore County. He also directs the Center for Metabolic Imaging and Therapeutics (CMIT), which provides a multi-disciplinary environment for the development of advanced metabolic imaging and the development of innovative image-guided interventions including focused ultrasound. Dr. Gullapalli has a broad background in medical imaging (MI) with specific training and expertise in developing novel magnetic resonance (MR) imaging techniques during his career while working both in the industry and in academia. His research interests include understanding longitudinal changes in the structure and function of the brain following traumatic brain injury and developing image-guided interventional techniques. More recently, Dr. Gullapalli’s lab has been involved in optimizing techniques for Magnetic Resonance guided Focused Ultrasound (MRgFUS) for application in neuromodulation and in treatment of chronic pain. He is also focused on the development of new imaging biomarkers associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and to understand the utility of multi-parametric imaging for improving the sensitivity and specificity of injury detection. Dr. Gullapalli maintains strong multi-disciplinary collaborations with investigators at UMB, UMCP, JHU and UMBC. He has over 150 peer reviewed publications, several national and international presentations, multiple book chapters and has edited a book on medical imaging.

Can you briefly explain the type of research you do?

Dr. Rao Gullapalli
Dr. Rao Gullapalli

My main focus is on identifying imaging biomarkers of brain injury from trauma or neurotoxins, and how such exposure can lead to changes in brain structure and function. I am also interested in the long-term outcomes from such exposures, particularly the mild to moderate forms, as the effects of such low-level exposures or mild traumatic brain injury have been less understood. Even a single impact to the head can lead to long-term comorbidities including early aging or increased propensity to other neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc. This is also true in the case of nerve injuries as a result of exposures to pesticides. For example, the consequences of exposure to low-level organophosphorus containing pesticides such as chlorpyrifos is unknown especially during gestation period or early childhood.  My interests are in the long-term implications of such exposures. In the case of traumatic brain injury, I have the unique opportunity to study traumatic brain injury both in the animal models and in humans. Studying the animal model of injury allows me to correlate non-invasive imaging findings with underlying pathophysiology and eventually helps in interpreting imaging findings in humans. I also am involved in advancing and developing new technologies to treat various neurodegenerative diseases. This is through the use of MR-guided focused ultrasound (MRgFUS). MRgFUS has the ability to make many of the invasive neurosurgical procedures at least minimally invasive as it does not require opening up the skull, and some surgeries can be done without anesthesia and totally under MR imaging guidance. The patient is placed into a hemispherical ultrasound transducer which is placed in the MRI. It is the ultrasound transducer that focuses the energy to a specific spot in the brain in order to thermally ablate that target which provides relief to the symptoms. The MRI is used to get continuous image-guidance and also to ensure that we are indeed targeting the right location in the brain. MRI also provides information on the temperature attained at the target to determine when the tissue being targeted has reached the temperature where it can be considered to be truly ablated. All of this is done while the subject is awake and is responding to the surgeon by doing simple neurological tasks that relates to the efficacy of treatment progress. Such technology also opens up opportunities for other milder forms of intervention such as neuromodulation which may benefit many patients with neurological conditions. As our lab assists in developing novel clinical treatments using this technology, we are also exploring the value of neuromodulation using focused ultrasound stimulation, for example to attenuate symptoms of chronic pain following traumatic brain injury.  

What drives you to do this research? 

Working with clinicians is an important component of my research. You cannot understand the gravity of a disease unless you start working closely with the physicians who understand the patient’s situation and are driven to develop therapeutic solutions. I am most motivated to provide technical solutions, particularly if they are within my capability. When the opportunity came up to provide the technical support for developing MRgGFUS procedures at University of Maryland with Dr. Howard Eisenberg, the previous head of neurosurgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Dr. Dheeraj Gandhi, the head of neuro-interventional radiology, I jumped at the opportunity. I continue to work with the current Chair of Neurosurgery, Dr. Graeme Woodworth, to advance this technology for various applications.  There is no greater pleasure than watching patients who have essential tremors for decades and are medication refractory, obtaining the MRgFUS procedure and two hours later coming out of the MR free from tremors. And the brain surgery did not involve any scalpel, or anesthesia and the patient was awake throughout the procedure, providing feedback on his progress. When you are part of a team like this, it drives you to do even more, and even better.  Basically, the environment is very conducive to think creatively and innovate.

What did it mean to you personally to be named an MPower Professor? 

It’s been a desire of mine even before the MPower program came on to be tightly knit with the faculty and the research activities at the University of Maryland College Park.  It is no coincidence that the top universities in biomedical sciences and engineering are those that have both the medical school and the engineering schools in close proximity.  And this is because a significant amount of cross-fertilization occurs between these two disciplines, yielding cutting edge innovation and advances. The MPower program is in some way a recognition of this fact and provides the appropriate infrastructure to bridge the two campuses and also University of Maryland Baltimore County. I am an engineer in the medical school at UMB, and I know the problems that surgeons and physicians deal with that require engineering solutions. While I can provide some solutions, it is good to get my engineering colleagues in College Park involved in a manner that can embolden the research and development aspects to take us to new heights.  Personally, I would like to continue this effort and I would like to contribute significantly to the MPower efforts working closely with the leadership, including Dr. Bruce Jarrell, President of UMB, Dr. Mark Gladwin, Dean of the School of Medicine, and Dr. Greg Ball, the Vice President of Research, to enhance collaborations and establish programs between the two campuses.  

How do you collaborate with researchers outside of your discipline?

I take every opportunity to provide seminars or talks on the College Park campus.  Similarly, I invite faculty members from College Park to provide seminars on our campus with the hopes of connecting them to investigators who may end up having collaborators.  Many years ago, I teamed up with Dr. Luiz Pessoa in the Psychology Department. Given our mutual interest and the interests of many investigators on both campuses, we started an annual retreat called the Maryland Neuroimaging Retreat.  This has been a very successful retreat which still continues and has facilitated many collaborations between the two campuses. Similarly, I have conducted a Cancer Imaging Retreat on both campuses which really brought many of the cancer investigators at College Park and UMBC under the umbrella of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center, strengthening its program.  I personally have worked with many investigators, including Amitabh Varshney on visualization projects, Yu Chen and Jaydev Desai on the development of image-guided robotics, and Wolfgang Losert in the Department of Physics on AI-related projects.  Our campus also benefited from the collaborative program that Wolfgang has with the NCI that funds student researchers working on cancer related projects. I have been working with Betsy Quinlan and others on various phases of the Cole Field House design and have collaborated with her on efforts to expand the animal imaging services at College Park.  

Why is this collaboration important to you? 

Researchers can benefit from cross-disciplinary collaborations based on their needs. If I have a project in mind, and I believe I can benefit from other expertise, then I start looking for suitable collaborators to work with at College Park or at UMBC. Finding suitable collaborators in close proximity is always better than working with someone else across the country. So I tend to find collaborators at these two campuses first before I look elsewhere.  

Please name the researchers you have worked with on MPower collaborations.

  • Amitabh Varshney, Computer Science
  • Betsy Quinlan, Biology
  • Wolfgang Losert, Physics
  • Luiz Pessoa, Psychology
  • Srinivasa Raghavan, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
  • Guiliani Scarceli, Bioengineering

How do the funds awarded from MPower support your research and help facilitate collaborations with other researchers? 

I am using the funds to support a scientist in my lab who is an expert in hyperpolarized metabolic imaging. We are working with him to set up the appropriate infrastructure to perform research on traumatic brain injury patients. I am also using the funds to extend MRgFUS towards neuromodulation, also for application in traumatic brain injury patients.  My hope is to work with investigators such as Srinivas Raghavan to develop substrates for hyperpolarized imaging and Luiz Pessoa to study modulation of brain networks following neuromodulation with MRgFUS stimulation.

What are the next steps for your research? 

In the next year or two, I will be focused on advancing our research on traumatic brain injury and also extending the applications of MRgFUS for applications in neuromodulation. I will be looking towards collaborations with Luiz Pessoa in understanding the changes in brain states following neuromodulation in healthy volunteers and those that have post traumatic symptoms following brain injury. In addition, we will strategize on submitting a T32 applications that promotes cross campus collaborations in neuroimaging. I will also be working with Wolfgang Losert to combine our resources to bridge imaging between the two campuses and to incorporate AI into many aspects of imaging.   

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