MRI Predicts Mild Cognitive Impairment

November 30, 2014

Using MRI to detect plaque build-up in coronary arteries may help identify patients developing mild cognitive impairment.

Magnetic resonance imaging detected plaque build-up in internal and common carotid arteries in some patients, which was associated with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), according to a study being presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, sought to determine associations between subclinical atherosclerosis, cognitive screening, and white matter hyperintensities detected by MRI.

The study included 1,903 subjects without a history of cardiovascular disease, who were participating in the Dallas Heart Study. Mean age was 44; 56% of the subjects were female. All completed the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MaCA) and underwent carotid and brain MRIs. “Increased white matter hyperintensity volume is part of the normal aging process,” researcher Christopher D. Maroules, MD, radiology resident at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said in a release. “But excessive WMH volume is a marker for cognitive impairment.”

Researchers also measured the buildup of plaque in the subjects’ arteries: MRI was used to measure wall thickness in the carotid arteries and the abdominal aorta, and CT to measure coronary artery calcium.

The results showed independent relationships between atherosclerosis in all three vascular areas of the body and cognitive health, as measured by MaCA scores and white matter hyperintensity volume on MR images.

Increasing internal carotid arteries wall area predicted a MaCA score of less than 26, but increasing common carotid arteries wall area did not predict the same score. Individuals in the highest quartile of internal carotid wall thickness were 21% more likely to have cognitive impairment as measured by a low MoCA score. The researchers concluded that subclinical coronary and carotid atherosclerosis are predictors of poorer cognitive function as measured by MoCA score and white matter intensity volume on MRI.

“Plaque buildup in blood vessels throughout the body offers us a window into brain health,” Maroules explained. “Imaging with CT and MRI has an important role in identifying patients who are at a higher risk for cognitive impairment.”