Cerebral Small Vessel Disease and Arterial Stiffness: Tsunami Effect in the Brain?

Pulse (Basel). 2016 Apr;3(3-4):182-9. doi: 10.1159/000443614. Epub 2016 Jan 20.


Background: Cerebral small vessel diseases, including silent lacunar infarcts, white matter hyperintensities, and microbleeds, pose a risk for cerebrovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and the geriatric syndrome via effects on arterial stiffness. However, the vascular, physiological, and metabolic roles of arterial stiffness in cerebral small vessel diseases remain unclear.

Summary: Arterial stiffness can be assessed using various indicators such as the ankle-brachial index, pulse wave velocity, cardio-ankle vascular index, and augmentation index. Arterial stiffness is independently associated with all components of cerebral small vessel disease including silent lacunar infarcts, white matter hyperintensities, and microbleeds, although there are some methodological differences between the various surrogate markers. Evidence of arterial stiffness indicates microvessel arteriosclerosis presenting with vascular endothelial dysfunction. Further, vascular narrowing due to atherosclerosis and vascular stiffness due to lipohyalinosis can accelerate the pulse waves. This hemodynamic stress, pulsatile pressure, or blood pressure variability can cause a 'tsunami effect' towards the cerebral parenchyma and lead to cerebral small vessel disease. Previous studies have shown that silent lacunar infarcts and white matter hyperintensities are strongly associated with arterial stiffness. However, the association between microbleeds and arterial stiffness remains controversial, as there are two vessel mechanisms related to microbleeds: cerebral amyloid angiopathy and hypertensive small vessel disease.

Key messages: Cerebral small vessel disease with associated arterial stiffness is a risk factor for silent cerebral lesions, stroke, and cognitive impairment. Improvement of the living environment, management of risk factors, and innovation and development of novel drugs that improve arterial stiffness may suppress the progression of cerebral small vessel disease, and may reduce the risk for stroke and dementia.

Keywords: Ankle-brachial index; Arterial stiffness; Cerebral small vessel disease; Cognitive impairment; Pulse wave velocity.

Publication types

  • Review