Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the arterial wall has emerged as a viable technology for characterizing atherosclerotic lesions in vivo, especially within carotid arteries and other large vessels. This capability has facilitated the use of carotid MRI in clinical trials to evaluate therapeutic effects on atherosclerotic lesions themselves. MRI is specifically able to characterize three important aspects of the lesion: size, composition and biological activity. Lesion size, expressed as a total wall volume, may be more sensitive than maximal vessel narrowing (stenosis) as a measure of therapeutic effects, as it reflects changes along the entire length of the lesion and accounts for vessel remodeling. Lesion composition (e.g. lipid, fibrous and calcified content) may reflect therapeutic effects that do not alter lesion size or stenosis, but cause a transition from a vulnerable plaque composition to a more stable one. Biological activity, most notably inflammation, is an emerging target for imaging that is thought to destabilize plaque and which may be a systemic marker of vulnerability. The ability of MRI to characterize each of these features in carotid atherosclerotic lesions gives it the potential, under certain circumstances, to replace traditional trials involving large numbers of subjects and hard end-points--heart attacks and strokes--with smaller, shorter trials involving imaging end-points. In this review, the state of the art in MRI of atherosclerosis is presented in terms of hardware, image acquisition protocols and post-processing. Also, the results of validation studies for measuring lesion size, composition and inflammation will be summarized. Finally, the status of several clinical trials involving MRI of atherosclerosis will be reviewed.
Copyright 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.