Background and purpose: Few family studies reported moderate genetic impact on the presence and scores of carotid plaques. However, the heritability of carotid plaque characteristics remains still unclear. Twin studies more reliably estimate the relative contribution of genes to these traits in contrast to family study design.
Methods: One hundred ninety-two monozygotic and 83 dizygotic adult twin pairs (age 49±15 years) from Italy, Hungary, and the United States underwent B-mode and color Doppler ultrasound of bilateral common, internal, and external carotid arteries.
Results: Age-, sex-, and country-adjusted heritability was 78% for the presence of carotid plaque (95% CI, 55%-90%), 74% for plaque echogenicity (hypoechoic, hyperechoic, or mixed; 95% CI, 38%-87%), 69% for plaque size (area in mm2 in longitudinal plane; <or>50 percentile; 95% CI, 16%-86%), 74% for plaque sidedness (unilateral or bilateral; 95% CI, 25%-90%), 74% for plaque numerosity (95% CI, 26%-86%), 68% (95% CI, 40%-84%), and 66% (95% CI, 32%-90%) for the presence of plaque in carotid bulbs and proximal internal carotid arteries. No role of shared environmental factors was found. Unique environmental factors were responsible for the remaining variance (22%-34%). Controlling for relevant covariates did not change the results significantly.
Conclusions: The heritability of ultrasound characteristics of carotid plaque is high. Unshared environmental effects account for a modest portion of the variance. Our findings should stimulate the search for genes responsible for these traits.