Researchers at the University of Oxford have developed a new type of MRI scan to predict the risk of having a stroke, thanks to funding from the British Heart Foundation.
The non-invasive technique, described in a paper published in the journal JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging, produces a quantitative result that can accurately indicate whether plaques in the carotid arteries, which supply the brain with blood, are rich in cholesterol, and therefore more likely to cause a stroke.
The rupture of fatty plaques can block the arteries and cause potentially debilitating and life-threatening strokes as the brain is starved of oxygen. There are more than 100,000 strokes in the UK each year, around a quarter of which are caused by carotid plaques.
Stroke costs billions
Latest figures show that stroke now costs the UK healthcare system an estimated £2 billion every year. It is estimated that stroke costs the UK as much as £9 billion a year as a society.
Predicting stroke risk
At present, the risk of stroke is measured by the size of the plaque in the carotid artery. If the plaque is deemed to be too big, people are treated surgically to remove it. However, this method can miss fatty plaques that are not big, but have a high risk of rupturing.
The new MRI technique was developed to differentiate between the risky plaques that contain a lot of cholesterol, and those that are more stable.
Cholesterol in fatty plaques
In the study, the researchers used the new MRI scan to measure the amount of cholesterol in the carotid plaques of 26 patients scheduled for surgery. After the plaques were surgically removed at the John Radcliffe Hosptial, the team looked at the actual cholesterol content in each plaque and found that the new technique was accurate and the more cholesterol they detected within the plaque, the greater the risk.
Life saving research
Speaking about the importance of this research, Dr Luca Biasiolli, an author on the study from the University of Oxford, said: “When someone goes to hospital having suffered a minor stroke, it’s vital that doctors know whether the patient might be at risk of a further stroke, which could be fatal.
“Being able to quantify cholesterol in carotid plaques is a really exciting prospect, as this new MRI technique could help doctors to identify patients at higher risk of stroke and make more informed decisions on their treatments.”
Our Medical Director, Professor Sir Nilesh Samani said: "This exciting research opens up the possibility that in the future we may be able to more accurately identify people with carotid plaques that are likely to rupture and cause a stroke."
Find out more about our stroke research