Objective: We undertook this study to quantitate differences in the degree of calcification between symptomatic and asymptomatic plaques removed at carotid endarterectomy (CEA) and to determine associated extent of plaque macrophage infiltration, a histopathologic feature of plaque instability.
Methods: CEA plaques (n = 48) were imaged at 1.25-mm intervals with spiral computed tomography (CT; 10-15 images per plaque). Indications for CEA were transient ischemic attack (n = 16), stroke (n = 5), amaurosis (n = 4), and critical asymptomatic stenosis (n = 23). The percent area calcification for each plaque was determined in spiral CT serial sections and averaged for each plaque. In 31 of 48 plaques macrophage infiltration was quantitated in corresponding histologic sections with immunohistochemical techniques.
Results: The mean (+/- SD) age of patients with symptomatic and asymptomatic plaques was 66 +/- 7 years vs 71 +/- 7 years, respectively, and degree of stenosis was 76% versus 82%, respectively (P =.05). Atherosclerosis risk factors were similar between groups. Percent plaque area calcification was twofold greater in asymptomatic versus symptomatic plaques (48% +/- 19% vs 24% +/- 20%, respectively; P <.05). At receiver operating characteristic curve analysis, 80% of symptomatic plaques were below and 87% of asymptomatic plaques were above a cutoff point of 30% plaque area calcification. Macrophage burden was greater in the symptomatic plaques than in the asymptomatic plaques (52% vs 23%; P <.03). A strong inverse relationship between the degree of plaque calcification and macrophage infiltration was found in critical carotid stenoses (r = -0.87; P <.001).
Conclusions: Symptomatic plaques are less calcified and more inflamed than asymptomatic plaques. Regardless of clinical outcome, a strong inverse correlation was found between the extent of carotid plaque calcification and the intensity of plaque fibrous cap inflammation as determined by the degree of macrophage infiltration. Carotid plaque calcification is associated with plaque stability, and is a potential spiral CT in vivo quantitative marker for cerebrovascular ischemic event risk.