Cannabis has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes by various civilizations. Despite this fact, the U.S. Federal Government has classified it at the highest level, making scientific research extremely difficult to perform. Currently the public’s view on cannabis is changing and now over 30 states allow some type of cannabis based products for medical use. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, for cannabis to be truly considered a medicinal drug, guidelines for its use must be established. When doctors prescribe drugs to help improve our health they always tell you when and how much of it should be used to alleviate your symptoms. Currently the bulk of medical professionals are unable to give any such guidelines when they sign off on medical marijuana cards. Determining how and what cannabis based products medical professionals recommend to patients are of critical importance to legitimizing medical marijuana. This point was prominently made during a recent government meeting sponsored by several institutes from the National Institutes of Health, Marijuana and Cannabinoids: A Neuroscience Research Summit, that convened in late March.
One of the attendees, Dr. Thorsten Rudroff, is a researcher for Colorado State University. Dr. Rudroff’s study centers around improving quality of life and fatigue in clinical populations, most notably multiple sclerosis. He estimates that about half of people with MS in Colorado are using some form of cannabis to help alleviate symptoms of their disease. While several studies have shown great improvement in pain management and spasticity, or uncontrolled muscle spasms, he says there are still a lot of unknowns about the benefits and negative side effects of cannabis for symptom management. When it comes to determining which products/strains help people with MS the most Rudroff says: “We observe a very expensive trial and error process for persons with MS.”
In Colorado, there are more than 2,500 marijuana business licenses in Colorado and more than 600 of them are for dispensaries. That means that there are more dispensaries in Colorado than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined — and the numbers keep growing.
“We have all kinds of anecdotal evidence or observations that components of medical cannabis are effective for the symptom treatment of multiple sclerosis, yet there hasn’t been a lot of research,” Rudroff said. “We were informed at the NIH Research Summit that negative side effects are increased in persons with MS. Therefore it is extremely important to find answers to the following questions: Which symptoms are best treated with cannabis, which constituent synthetic or plant-derived cannabinoid in isolation or if using a combination of cannabinoids best treats MS symptoms, in what ratios, delivered by which route (smoking, edibles, drops, etc.) and at what dose. This knowledge of the influence of cannabis on MS might help clinicians and persons with MS make an informed decision on whether to recommend cannabis for symptom management in MS.”
The long-term goal of Dr. Rudroff’s lab is to determine the safety and efficacy of cannabis in treating MS symptoms and helping persons with MS to live the highest quality of life. The first step in the pursuit of that goal, is to identify the effects of regular cannabis use on motor function and fatigue. Loss of motor function is often the most visible symptom of MS affecting activities of daily living. Furthermore, it has been reported that fatigue affects up to 80 percent of people with MS. Unfortunately, the only measures of fatigue often used in previous studies are self-reported subjective questionnaires.
Dr. Rudroff’s lab uses exercises that measure physical performance, strength and walking ability, of persons with MS, and also conducts the research by using neuroimaging techniques. The lab is one of the few in the world using PET/CT (positron emission tomography/computed tomography) to investigate neurological and muscular activity immediately after subjects performed an exercise task.
Persons with 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. Dr. Rudroff will be looking at whether the scans of persons with MS who take medical cannabis display changes in the central nervous system’s glucose uptake and more efficient muscle activation 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.
“This research,” he says, “can’t be done in many other states that don’t have the same marijuana laws.”
In his studies, he collaborates with Dr. William Shaffer of Greeley, Colorado, a neurologist who is a strong proponent of medical marijuana. The imaging will be conducted primarily at PET Imaging of Northern Colorado in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Rudroff’s research is supported by CannaSaver, an online platform that offers medical and recreational marijuana deals and savings. Brian Shapiro, founder of CannaSaver, sees the strong need for cannabis research.
“We have to provide our clients with the best possible information on medical cannabis. Scientists, like Dr. Rudroff, will help us to make medical cannabis a safe and an effective treatment,” he says. “CannaSaver helped mainstream the use of cannabis, by being the first to do coupons and deals for medical and recreational marijuana online and research like Dr. Rudroff’s also helps greatly in furthering that cause by putting hard research behind a plant that needs to be legal for the benefit of the millions of people it potentially can help.”
Because cannabis is still considered an illegal drug of the highest order in the United States, there’s been scant medical research related to it, which is often dependent on limited grants from the government and from non-profit organizations. Therefore, Dr. Rudroff decided to go the crowdsourcing route which is supported by the Colorado State University. Donations can be made via CSU’s CHARGE! Crowdfunding website at col.st/nsg6F.
According to Rudroff’s crowdfunding video, Colorado is an ideal area for the studies because the state has one of the highest rates of MS in the country, he said. An estimated 2.7 million people worldwide live with MS, 550,000 of whom live in the U.S., which notes that one in 420 Coloradans live with the disease.
In addition to physical tests and neuroimaging, Rudroff launched an anonymous survey hosted by CSU that asks those who have any neurological disease about their medical marijuana use. That survey is available at col.st/Rvg4K.
Do you use cannabis to treat an ailment? Tell us about your experiences below.