Uses of ultrasound in stroke prevention

J. David Spence


Ultrasound methods are useful in stroke prevention in several ways. Measurement of carotid plaque burden, as either total plaque area (TPA) or total plaque volume (TPV) are strong predictors of cardiovascular risk: much stronger than intima-media thickness, which does not represent true atherosclerosis, but a biologically and genetically distinct phenotype. Measurement of plaque burden is also useful for the study of genetics, and of new risk factors such as toxic products of the intestinal microbiome. Carotid plaque burden is highly correlated with and as predictive of risk as coronary calcium scores, but is less costly and does not require radiation. Furthermore, because carotid plaques change in time over a period of months, they can be used for a new approach to vascular prevention: “Treating arteries instead of treating risk factors”. In high-risk patients with asymptomatic carotid stenosis (ACS), this approach, implemented in 2003 in our clinics, was associated with a >80% reduction of stroke and myocardial infarction over 2 years. “Treating arteries without measuring plaque would be like treating hypertension without measuring blood pressure”. Ultrasound methods can also be used to assess plaque vulnerability, by detecting echolucency, ulceration and plaque inhomogeneity on assessment of plaque texture. Transcranial Doppler (TCD) embolus detection is useful for risk stratification in patients with ACS; patients with two or more microemboli in an hour of monitoring have a 1-year risk of 15.6%, vs. 1% without microemboli, so this very clearly distinguishes which patients with ACS could benefit from intervention. TCD saline studies are more sensitive than trans- esophageal echocardiography for detection of patent foramen ovale, and more predictive of recurrent stroke. These methods should be more widely used, to reduce the increasing burden of stroke in our aging populations.