Alexander John Poplawsky, PhD

Alex Poplawsky
Research Instructor
Department of Radiology
School of Medicine
University of Pittsburgh
McGowan Inst. for Regenerative Medicine
3025 E. Carson St., rm. 159
Pittsburgh, PA 15203
Phone: 412-383-8018
E-mail: ajp94 at


2011 PhD in Neuroscience, Emory University, Adviser: Xiaoping Hu
2004 BS in Chemistry and Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh

Employment Positions

2017-present Research Instructor, Dept. of Radiology, University of Pittsburgh
2011-2017Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Pittsburgh, Advisers: Seong-Gi Kim, Mitsuhiro Fukuda


Research Synopsis

My research focuses on the neuronal sources of fMRI signal changes to determine how well the hemodynamic response, as it is measured with fMRI, can accurately report changes in neuronal activity especially at high spatial resolutions. To accomplish this, I utilize the well-known circuitry of the olfactory bulb in rodents. In collaboration with Hiro Fukuda, we show that peak fMRI signal changes are co-localized with the evoked synaptic activity of single, isolated layers of the bulb. We also speculate that control of microvessel dilation, such as capillaries, near the evoked synapses is likely the dominating source of our fMRI signal changes. Finally, we are combining optogenetics and light-activated ion channels with fMRI to examine cell type-specific contributions to the fMRI response. Click for details regarding our olfactory bulb imaging project.


Poplawsky AJ, Fukuda M, Kang B-m, Kim JH, Suh M, Kim S-G (in press) Dominance of layer-specific microvessel dilation in contrast-enhanced high-resolution fMRI: Comparison between hemodynamic spread and vascular architecture with CLARITY. Neuroimage, Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.046. (Abstract)
Contrast-enhanced cerebral blood volume-weighted (CBVw) fMRI response peaks are specific to the layer of evoked synaptic activity (Poplawsky et al., 2015), but the spatial resolution limit of CBVw fMRI is unknown. In this study, we measured the laminar spread of the CBVw fMRI evoked response in the external plexiform layer (EPL, 265 ± 65 μm anatomical thickness, mean ± SD, n = 30 locations from 5 rats) of the rat olfactory bulb during electrical stimulation of the lateral olfactory tract and examined its potential vascular source. First, we obtained the evoked CBVw fMRI responses with a 55 × 55 μm2 in-plane resolution and a 500-μm thickness at 9.4 T, and found that the fMRI signal peaked predominantly in the inner half of EPL (136 ± 54 μm anatomical thickness). The mean full-width at half-maximum of these fMRI peaks was 347 ± 102 μm and the functional spread was approximately 100 or 200 μm when the effects of the laminar thicknesses of EPL or inner EPL were removed, respectively. Second, we visualized the vascular architecture of EPL from a different rat using a Clear Lipid-exchanged Anatomically Rigid Imaging/immunostaining-compatible Tissue hYdrogel (CLARITY)-based tissue preparation method and confocal microscopy. Microvascular segments with an outer diameter of <11 μm accounted for 64.3% of the total vascular volume within EPL and had a mean segment length of 55 ± 40 μm (n = 472). Additionally, vessels that crossed the EPL border had a mean segment length outside of EPL equal to 73 ± 61 μm (n = 28), which is comparable to half of the functional spread (50-100 μm). Therefore, we conclude that dilation of these microvessels, including capillaries, likely dominate the CBVw fMRI response and that the biological limit of the fMRI spatial resolution is approximately the average length of 1-2 microvessel segments, which may be sufficient for examining sublaminar circuits.
Poplawsky AJ, Fukuda M, Kim S-G (in press) Foundations of layer-specific fMRI and investigations of neurophysiological activity in the laminarized neocortex and olfactory bulb of animal models. Neuroimage, Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.05.023. PMCID:PMC5682230. (Abstract)
Laminar organization of neuronal circuits is a recurring feature of how the brain processes information. For instance, different layers compartmentalize different cell types, synaptic activities, and have unique intrinsic and extrinsic connections that serve as units for specialized signal processing. Functional MRI is an invaluable tool to investigate laminar processing in the in vivo human brain, but it measures neuronal activity indirectly by way of the hemodynamic response. Therefore, the accuracy of high-resolution laminar fMRI depends on how precisely it can measure localized microvascular changes nearest to the site of evoked activity. To determine the specificity of fMRI responses to the true neurophysiological responses across layers, the flexibility to invasive procedures in animal models has been necessary. In this review, we will examine different fMRI contrasts and their appropriate uses for layer-specific fMRI, and how localized laminar processing was examined in the neocortex and olfactory bulb. Through collective efforts, it was determined that microvessels, including capillaries, are regulated within single layers and that several endogenous and contrast-enhanced fMRI contrast mechanisms can separate these neural-specific vascular changes from the nonspecific, especially cerebral blood volume-weighted fMRI with intravenous contrast agent injection. We will also propose some open questions that are relevant for the successful implementation of layer-specific fMRI and its potential future directions to study laminar processing when combined with optogenetics.
Lohani S*, Poplawsky AJ*, Kim S-G, Moghaddam B (2017) Unexpected global impact of VTA dopamine neuron activation as measured by opto-fMRI. Mol Psychiatr, 22, 585-594. doi:10.1038/mp.2016.102. PMCID:PMC5269559. (Abstract)
Dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) are strongly implicated in cognitive and affective processing as well as in psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and substance abuse disorders. In human studies, dopamine-related functions are routinely assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures of blood oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) signals during the performance of dopamine-dependent tasks. There is, however, a critical void in our knowledge about whether and how activation of VTA dopamine neurons specifically influences regional or global fMRI signals. Here, we used optogenetics in Th::Cre rats to selectively stimulate VTA dopamine neurons while simultaneously measuring global hemodynamic changes using BOLD and cerebral blood volume-weighted (CBVw) fMRI. Phasic activation of VTA dopamine neurons increased BOLD and CBVw fMRI signals in VTA-innervated limbic regions, including the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens). Surprisingly, basal ganglia regions that receive sparse or no VTA dopaminergic innervation, including the dorsal striatum and the globus pallidus, were also activated. In fact, the most prominent fMRI signal increase in the forebrain was observed in the dorsal striatum that is not traditionally associated with VTA dopamine neurotransmission. These data establish causation between phasic activation of VTA dopamine neurons and global fMRI signals. They further suggest that mesolimbic and non-limbic basal ganglia dopamine circuits are functionally connected and thus provide a potential novel framework for understanding dopamine-dependent functions and interpreting data obtained from human fMRI studies.
Fukuda M, Poplawsky AJ, Kim S-G (2016). Chapter 6 - Submillimeter-resolution fMRI: Toward understanding local neural processing. In: Progress in Brain Research, H.H. Kazuto Masamoto, and Y. Katsuya, eds. (Elsevier), pp. 123-152. doi:10.1016/bs.pbr.2016.03.003. (Abstract)
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures the hemodynamic response to active neurons. The most prevailing fMRI contrast, blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) contrast, specifically results from a complex interplay between oxygen metabolism, blood flow, and blood volume reactions. Therefore, because fMRI indirectly measures brain function, the spatial accuracy of these blood-borne signal changes to the true neuronal activity comes into question, especially at high resolutions. To better interpret the neural basis of fMRI, these properties have been studied in localized neural circuits of the brain using fMRI with blood flow, blood volume, and BOLD contrasts, as well as optical intrinsic signal imaging (OISI), which shares similar signal sources as fMRI. Here, we review how submillimeter-scale high-resolution fMRI and OISI in the visual cortex columnar and olfactory bulb laminar models have advanced our basic knowledge of the spatial localization of the individual hemodynamic signals and neurovascular coupling mechanisms.
Murphy MC, Poplawsky AJ, Vazquez AL, Chan KC, Kim S-G, Fukuda M (2016) Improved spatial accuracy of functional maps in the rat olfactory bulb using supervised machine learning approach. Neuroimage, 137, 1-8. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.05.055. PMCID:PMC4914461. (Abstract)
Functional MRI (fMRI) is a popular and important tool for noninvasive mapping of neural activity. As fMRI measures the hemodynamic response, the resulting activation maps do not perfectly reflect the underlying neural activity. The purpose of this work was to design a data-driven model to improve the spatial accuracy of fMRI maps in the rat olfactory bulb. This system is an ideal choice for this investigation since the bulb circuit is well characterized, allowing for an accurate definition of activity patterns in order to train the model. We generated models for both cerebral blood volume weighted (CBVw) and blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) fMRI data. The results indicate that the spatial accuracy of the activation maps is either significantly improved or at worst not significantly different when using the learned models compared to a conventional general linear model approach, particularly for BOLD images and activity patterns involving deep layers of the bulb. Furthermore, the activation maps computed by CBVw and BOLD data show increased agreement when using the learned models, lending more confidence to their accuracy. The models presented here could have an immediate impact on studies of the olfactory bulb, but perhaps more importantly, demonstrate the potential for similar flexible, data-driven models to improve the quality of activation maps calculated using fMRI data.
Iordanova B, Vazquez AL, Poplawsky AJ, Fukuda M, Kim S-G (2015) Neural and hemodynamic responses to optogenetic and sensory stimulation in the rat somatosensory cortex. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab, 35(6), 922-932. doi:10.1038/jcbfm.2015.10. PMCID:PMC4640245. (Abstract)
Introducing optogenetics into neurovascular research can provide novel insights into the cell-specific control of the hemodynamic response. To generalize findings from molecular approaches, it is crucial to determine whether light-activated circuits have the same effect on the vasculature as sensory-activated ones. For that purpose, rats expressing channelrhodopsin (ChR2) specific to excitatory glutamatergic neurons were used to measure neural activity, blood flow, hemoglobin-based optical intrinsic signal, and blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during optogenetic and sensory stimulation. The magnitude of the evoked hemodynamic responses was monotonically correlated with optogenetic stimulus strength. The BOLD hemodynamic response function was consistent for optogenetic and sensory stimuli. The relationship between electrical activities and hemodynamic responses was comparable for optogenetic and sensory stimuli, and better explained by the local field potential (LFP) than the firing rate. The LFP was well correlated with cerebral blood flow, moderately with cerebral blood volume, and less with deoxyhemoglobin (dHb) level. The presynaptic firing rate had little impact on evoking vascular response. Contribution of the postsynaptic LFP to the blood flow response induced by optogenetic stimulus was further confirmed by the application of glutamate receptor antagonists. Overall, neurovascular coupling during optogenetic control of glutamatergic neurons largely conforms to that of a sensory stimulus.
Poplawsky AJ*, Fukuda M*, Murphy M, Kim S-G (2015) Layer-Specific fMRI Responses to Excitatory and Inhibitory Neuronal Activities in the Olfactory Bulb. J Neurosci, 35(46), 15263-15275. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.1015-15.2015. PMCID:PMC4649002. (Abstract)
High-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) detects localized neuronal activity via the hemodynamic response, but it is unclear whether it accurately identifies neuronal activity specific to individual layers. To address this issue, we preferentially evoked neuronal activity in superficial, middle, and deep layers of the rat olfactory bulb: the glomerular layer by odor (5% amyl acetate), the external plexiform layer by electrical stimulation of the lateral olfactory tract (LOT), and the granule cell layer by electrical stimulation of the anterior commissure (AC), respectively. Electrophysiology, laser-Doppler flowmetry of cerebral blood flow (CBF), and blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) and cerebral blood volume-weighted (CBV) fMRI at 9.4 T were performed independently. We found that excitation of inhibitory granule cells by stimulating LOT and AC decreased the spontaneous multi-unit activities of excitatory mitral cells and subsequently increased CBF, CBV, and BOLD signals. Odor stimulation also increased the hemodynamic responses. Furthermore, the greatest CBV fMRI responses were discretely separated into the same layers as the evoked neuronal activities for all three stimuli, whereas BOLD was poorly localized with some exception to the poststimulus undershoot. In addition, the temporal dynamics of the fMRI responses varied depending on the stimulation pathway, even within the same layer. These results indicate that the vasculature is regulated within individual layers and CBV fMRI has a higher fidelity to the evoked neuronal activity compared with BOLD. Our findings are significant for understanding the neuronal origin and spatial specificity of hemodynamic responses, especially for the interpretation of laminar-resolution fMRI.
Poplawsky AJ, Kim S-G (2014) Layer-dependent BOLD and CBV-weighted fMRI responses in the rat olfactory bulb. Neuroimage, 91, 237-251. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.12.067. PMCID:PMC3965612. (Abstract)
The olfactory bulb is a laminarized brain structure involved in odor sensation that has important implications to basic neuroscience research, like mechanisms for neurovascular coupling and early disease diagnosis. To investigate laminar-dependent responses to odor exposure, blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) and cerebral blood volume weighted (CBVw) fMRI with iron oxide nanoparticle contrast agent were obtained with 110 × 110 × 500 μm3 resolution in urethane-anesthetized rats at 9.4 T. The baseline total CBV is the largest at the olfactory bulb surface and midline, and decreases in the deeper layers, while a band of increased microvasculature density is observed at the glomerular, external plexiform and mitral cell layers. With odor exposure, CBVw fMRI is more sensitive and reproducible than BOLD. BOLD fMRI had the greatest activation on the bulb surface, midline, olfactory nerve and glomerular layers, while CBVw activation peaked in glomerular and external plexiform layers, but was still significant in mitral cell layer. Negative BOLD responses were observed in the bulb midline and near large blood vessels. CBVw laminar profiles are similar to the layer-dependent metabolic changes to the same odor exposure reported by previous glucose metabolism studies. Unique activation patterns for two different odor conditions were also differentiated with CBVw fMRI. Our study suggests that CBVw activation better represents the spatial location of metabolic activity in the olfactory bulb than BOLD.
Zong X, Lee J, Poplawsky AJ, Kim S-G, Ye JC (2014) Compressed sensing fMRI using gradient-recalled echo and EPI sequences. Neuroimage, 92, 312-321. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.01.045. PMCID:PMC4021580. (Abstract)
Compressed sensing (CS) may be useful for accelerating data acquisitions in high-resolution fMRI. However, due to the inherent slow temporal dynamics of the hemodynamic signals and concerns of potential statistical power loss, the CS approach for fMRI (CS–fMRI) has not been extensively investigated. To evaluate the utility of CS in fMRI application, we systematically investigated the properties of CS–fMRI using computer simulations and in vivo experiments of rat forepaw sensory and odor stimulations with gradient-recalled echo (GRE) and echo planar imaging (EPI) sequences. Various undersampling patterns along the phase-encoding direction were studied and k–t FOCUSS was used as the CS reconstruction algorithm, which exploits the temporal redundancy of images. Functional sensitivity, specificity, and time courses were compared between fully-sampled and CS–fMRI with reduction factors of 2 and 4. CS–fMRI with GRE, but not with EPI, improves the statistical sensitivity for activation detection over the fully sampled data when the ratio of the fMRI signal change to noise is low. CS improves the temporal resolution and reduces temporal noise correlations. While CS reduces the functional response amplitudes, the noise variance is also reduced to make the overall activation detection more sensitive. Consequently, CS is a valuable fMRI acceleration approach, especially for GRE fMRI studies.
Poplawsky AJ, Dingledine R, Hu XP (2012) Direct detection of a single evoked action potential with MRS in Lumbricus terrestris. NMR Biomed, 25(1), 123-130. doi:10.1002/nbm.1724. PMCID:PMC3197904. (Abstract)
Functional MRI (fMRI) measures neural activity indirectly by detecting the signal change associated with the hemodynamic response following brain activation. In order to alleviate the temporal and spatial specificity problems associated with fMRI, a number of attempts have been made to detect neural magnetic fields (NMFs) with MRI directly, but have thus far provided conflicting results. In this study, we used MR to detect axonal NMFs in the median giant fiber of the earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris, by examining the free induction decay (FID) with a sampling interval of 0.32ms. The earthworm nerve cords were isolated from the vasculature and stimulated at the threshold of action potential generation. FIDs were acquired shortly after the stimulation, and simultaneous field potential recordings identified the presence or absence of single evoked action potentials. FIDs acquired when the stimulus did not evoke an action potential were summed as background. The phase of the background-subtracted FID exhibited a systematic change, with a peak phase difference of (-1.2 +/- 0.3)x105 radians occurring at a time corresponding to the timing of the action potential. In addition, we calculated the possible changes in the FID magnitude and phase caused by a simulated action potential using a volume conductor model. The measured phase difference matched the theoretical prediction well in both amplitude and temporal characteristics. This study provides the first evidence for the direct detection of a magnetic field from an evoked action potential using MR.
* Co-First Authors