Lack of association of white matter lesions with ipsilateral carotid artery stenosis

Cerebrovasc Dis. 2012;33(4):378-84. doi: 10.1159/000336762. Epub 2012 Mar 14.


Background: White matter lesions (WML) are commonly seen on brain MRI and are generally considered a marker of tissue damage from cerebral small vessel disease. WML are associated with increasing age and vascular risk factors, but their precise cause is unknown. A role for carotid artery atherothromboemboli has been suggested. If this is the case, more WML would be expected ipsilateral to increasing degrees of carotid stenosis.

Methods: We recruited patients with ischaemic stroke from two large, separate prospective stroke studies, assessed with brain MRI and carotid Doppler ultrasound. We scored hemispheric WML visually in periventricular and deep locations. We assessed the association between carotid stenosis asymmetry and WML asymmetry, and vice versa. Further, we assessed the association between carotid stenosis and ipsilateral WML, before and after adjusting for vascular risk factors, and tested associations between ipsilateral and contralateral stenoses and WML.

Results: We recruited 247 (Study 1) and 253 (Study 2) patients. In Study 1 and Study 2, 36 (15%) and 29 (11%) patients had ≥50% carotid stenosis, and 27 (11%) and 15 (6%) had ≥70% stenosis, respectively. Carotid stenosis was asymmetric in 28 (11%) and 26 (10%) patients and WML were asymmetric in 22 (9%) and 11 (4%) patients in Study 1 and Study 2, respectively. We found no association between carotid stenosis and ipsilateral WML score, before or after adjusting for vascular risk factors or sidedness, but WML were strongly associated with increasing age (p < 0.001).

Conclusion: In two large cohorts of ischaemic stroke patients, we found no association between carotid stenosis and ipsi- or contralateral WML. There is now substantial evidence that atherothromboemboli are unlikely to cause most WML or other forms of cerebral small vessel lesions. Future studies should focus on determining what causes the intrinsic small vessel pathological changes that appear to underlie most WML.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Ischemia / pathology
  • Carotid Stenosis / diagnostic imaging
  • Carotid Stenosis / pathology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Ischemic Attack, Transient / pathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Stroke / pathology
  • Thromboembolism / pathology
  • Ultrasonography
  • Vascular Diseases / epidemiology