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Research / Discovery

Prof uses PET imaging to study multiple sclerosis

Aug. 22, 2014

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, more than 2.3 million people worldwide are affected by multiple sclerosis. The cause of this immune disease is still unknown and there is currently no cure. The cause of the initial symptoms of the disease is equally mysterious, as those with MS develop pain, numbness, or weakness in one leg.

From left are Juhani Knuuti, professor and director of the Turku PET Center, chairman of the Organization Committee for the Turku PET Symposium; John Kindred, Ph.D. student in the Rudroff Lab; and Thorsten Rudroff, Ph.D., at the XIII Turku PET Symposium, held May 24-25 in Turku, Finland.Solving the mystery behind this warning symptom is the basis for the research of Colorado State University Department of Health and Exercise Science Assistant Professor Thorsten Rudroff, who is using cutting-edge methods to discover just how MS affects the body. 

Traditionally, doctors and scientists have used electromyography, or EMG, to study how different diseases impact the muscles. Patients with MS, who already struggle to remain balanced while walking, may have to alter their gait to accommodate the electrodes and wiring, which produces unreliable results.

However, Positron Emission Tomography, or PET, can gather more detailed data without impeding movement. Rudroff is one of the first in the nation to use PET to study muscle glucose intake by injecting a tracer into the subject, which is taken up by the muscles to map how muscles react when patients perform physical tasks. He is able to see where muscles take in glucose, the muscle's energy source, and where the glucose is being used. 

"PET has allowed us to gather more accurate, focused data, which generated some surprising results," explains Rudroff.

Heightened glucose

Through a grant from the National MS Society, Rudroff has used PET imaging to compare glucose use in the leg muscles of healthy volunteers and patients in the early stages of MS. He has discovered that the patients with MS had significantly higher glucose levels in their legs than the healthy volunteer. Furthermore, the PET scan clearly showed that the MS patients had an imbalanced distribution of glucose uptake, with one leg requiring more glucose than the other, which caused walking impairments and leg weakness. 

The next step in Rudroff's research will be at the Center for Neurorehabilitation Services, P.C., an independent, transdisciplinary outpatient care facility in Fort Collins, where he will use the PET findings to create more effective rehabilitation programs for patients with MS. 

"What is exciting about these PET findings is that we may be able to catch this glucose intake imbalance during an earlier stage of the disease, and thus start rehabilitation early to help offset MS symptoms," says Rudroff, who recently shared his findings with the world's leading experts in PET technology at the Turku PET Symposium in Turku, Finland. While there, John Kindred, one of Rudroff's graduate students, received the Young Investigator Award for his research on glucose uptake in the brain and skeletal muscles. 

Research expanding

In collaboration with PET Imaging of Northern Colorado, a clinic composed of PET experts from across the state of Colorado, Rudroff is expanding his research, using the same PET technique to study the brain and the spinal cord. His team found that MS patients had little to no glucose uptake in the spinal cord when performing an exercise, which is surprising compared to that of a healthy patient who saw an increase in glucose uptake in this region. 

"This is an exciting collaboration, bringing together the best minds in PET technology, MS research, and rehabilitation techniques in CSU's backyard," says Rudroff.

Rudroff's spinal cord research was recently published in the journal, Spinal Cord, by the Nature Publishing Group.

The Department of Health and Exercise Science is in the College of Health and Human Sciences.