CSU researcher to study MS patients who use medical marijuana

CSU researcher to study MS patients who use medical marijuana
MMJ-MS research 2

Editor’s note (5/2/16): CSU researcher Thorsten Rudroff reports that he has reached his crowdfunding goal for this project thanks in great part to a contribution from Brian Shapiro, founder and CEO of CannaSaver. 

Some multiple sclerosis patients use medical marijuana to reduce their pain and muscle spasms, and a Colorado State University researcher is launching a crowdfunding campaign to study possible benefits and side effects of this long-term marijuana use.

The research project will not involve providing cannabis or encouraging its use; it will simply examine existing users who have decided to treat their MS symptoms with medical marijuana and voluntarily agree to participate in the study.

Thorsten Rudroff, director of CSU’s Integrative Neurophysiology Lab, said local clinicians estimate that up to 50 percent of their patients are using marijuana to alleviate their symptoms.

Thorsten Rudroff

Thorsten Rudroff

‘Anecdotal evidence’

“Marijuana use may have additional benefits, such as improving motor function, but this is all based on anecdotal evidence,” Rudroff said. “We don’t have scientific evidence that this is working, so we think this research could provide valuable information.”

Rudroff would like to conduct tests on at least 20 MS patients in northern Colorado who are already using medical marijuana and compare them to a control group of the same size who don’t. He said that Colorado, which voted to allow medical marijuana use in 2000, is an ideal location for the study.

“This research can’t be done in many other states that don’t have the same marijuana laws,” Rudroff explained. “Also, Colorado has one of the highest rates of MS in the country. More and more dispensaries are coming, and we need to give patients solid information.”

High-tech scanning

In addition to administering exercises that measure patients’ physical stability, strength and walking ability, Rudroff will use a high-tech scanner to monitor their muscle activity and central nervous system activity to detect any differences between cannabis users and non-users. The CSU lab will be one of the few labs in the world using a PET/CT (positron emission tomography/computed tomography) scanner to track muscular and neurological activity immediately after patients walk on a treadmill.

Rudroff, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Health and Exercise Science, said MS patients typically display lower-than-average glucose uptake in the brain and spinal cord, along with unnecessary muscle firing in the legs or in one side of the body, which may cause weakness and fatigue. He will be looking at whether the scans of MS patients who take medical marijuana display more efficient muscle activation or changes in the central nervous system’s glucose uptake by injecting a sugar-based tracer into subjects’ veins before they exercise on the treadmill. Afterwards, the PET/CT scanner shows the extent to which the tracer was consumed as an energy source by tissue in the brain, spinal cord and lower extremities.

“With MS, something along that path from the brain to the legs goes wrong,” Rudroff said. “Maybe cannabis somehow improves this drive to the muscles.”

The PET/CT scanner can track muscular and neurological activity after patients walk on a treadmill.

The PET/CT scanner can track muscular and neurological activity in patients.

He acknowledged that using crowdfunding to support research is unconventional, but given the growing competition for federal grants, he decided to pursue the alternative approach. He hopes to raise at least $7,000; donations can be made via CSU’s CHARGE! crowdfunding website at That page also features a video about the project.

Future grants

Rudroff said he hopes results from the initial study, which won’t differentiate among different marijuana strains or consumption methods, will help him land grants from agencies like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and National Institutes of Health for additional research. The MS Society previously awarded him $44,000 for a two-year grant to study glucose uptake in MS patients.

In his new study, he’ll be working with Dr. William Shaffer of Greeley, a neurologist who is a proponent of medical marijuana. The imaging will be conducted primarily at PET Imaging of Northern Colorado in Fort Collins, and Rudroff will be assisted by two of his Ph.D. students, John Kindred and Nathan Ketelhut.

In addition to the physical tests and scans, Rudroff recently launched an anonymous survey on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s website that asks those who have neurological disease about their medical marijuana use, its effects and their views on it. That survey is available at

The study has been approved by the CSU Research Integrity and Compliance Review Office’s Institutional Review Board (Protocol ID 126-16H). The Department of Health and Exercise Science is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.