Pharmacological stress testing

Semin Nucl Med. 1999 Oct;29(4):298-318. doi: 10.1016/s0001-2998(99)80018-x.


Pharmacological stress in conjunction with radionuclide myocardial perfusion imaging has become a widely used noninvasive method of assessing patients with known or suspected coronary artery disease. In the United States, over one third of perfusion imaging studies are performed with pharmacological stress. Pharmacological stress agents fall into two categories: coronary vasodilating agents such as dipyridamole and adenosine, and cardiac positive inotropic agents such as dobutamine and arbutamine. For both, in the presence of coronary artery disease (CAD), perfusion image abnormalities result from heterogeneity of coronary blood flow reserve. Vasodilating agents work directly on the coronary vessels to increase blood flow, whereas inotropic agents work indirectly by increasing myocardial work load, which then leads to an increase in coronary blood flow. Both classes of agents have high accuracies for diagnosing coronary artery disease, and they have excellent safety records with acceptably low occurrences of side effects. For dipyridamole planar thallium imaging, pooled analysis yields a sensitivity of 85% and a specificity of 87% for diagnosis of coronary disease, but there is a large variation in reported values depending on various factors, such as the extent of postcatheterization referral bias, the type of imaging (planar versus single photon emission computed tomography [SPECT]), the types of patients being studied (single versus multivessel disease, men versus women), and the imaging agent used (thallium versus one of the technetium-based agents). Diagnostic accuracies for adenosine are similar to those of dipyridamole, with reported overall sensitivities ranging from 83% to 97%, and specificities ranging from 38% to 94%. For dobutamine, pooled analyses yield a sensitivity of 82% and a specificity of 75%. There is some concern that dobutamine may interfere with uptake of technetium-99m sestamibi, lowering the sensitivity for detection of disease, and thus the vasdodilating agents are generally preferred. Pharmacological stress testing has high clinical use for risk stratifying patients with known or suspected CAD, in patients after myocardial infarction, and in patients needing noncardiac surgery. Vasodilating agents are particularly advantageous in assessing post-myocardial infarction patients, allowing testing as soon as 2 days after the event. Like patients undergoing exercise stress testing, patients with normal perfusion images by pharmacological stress have a <1% annual incidence of cardiac events. The likelihood of an event increases with the extent and severity of perfusion abnormalities. However, it is important to consider clinical variables when using perfusion imaging for risk stratification, particularly in the presurgery patients. As with exercise testing, adjunct markers such as ST segment depression during testing, lung uptake of radiotracer (if thallium is used), and ventricular cavity dilatation add additional prognostic information to that available from the perfusion images alone. The aim of current research is to find better agents that are easier to use and that have fewer side effects. MRE-0470 is an experimental vasodilating agent that is more receptor selective than adenosine and promises a lower incidence of hypotension. Arbutamine more closely simulates exercise than dobutamine, and it can be administered by a closed-loop computerized delivery device. Work is also underway to look at novel uses of pharmacological stress agents, such as acquiring gated SPECT images during dobutamine infusion to enhance detection of myocardial viability. With increasing use of noninvasive testing in elderly patients and in patients with comorbidities that preclude adequate exercise, pharmacological stress testing has become an indispensable tool for radionuclide myocardial perfusion imaging studies. A good understanding of pharmacological stress testing is essential for performing high-quality nuclear cardiology

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiotonic Agents*
  • Coronary Circulation
  • Coronary Disease / diagnostic imaging*
  • Female
  • Heart / diagnostic imaging*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed, Single-Photon
  • Vasodilator Agents*


  • Cardiotonic Agents
  • Vasodilator Agents