Intracranial pulsatility in patients with cerebral small vessel disease: a systematic review

Clin Sci (Lond). 2018 Jan 16;132(1):157-171. doi: 10.1042/CS20171280. Print 2018 Jan 16.


Growing evidence suggests that increased intracranial pulsatility is associated with cerebral small vessel disease (SVD). We systematically reviewed papers that assessed intracranial pulsatility in subjects with SVD. We included 27 cross-sectional studies (n=3356): 20 used Doppler ultrasound and 7 used phase-contrast MRI. Most studies measured pulsatility in the internal carotid or middle cerebral arteries (ICA, MCA), whereas few assessed veins or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Methods to reduce bias and risk factor adjustment were poorly reported. Substantial variation between studies in assessment of SVD and of pulsatility indices precluded a formal meta-analysis. Eight studies compared pulsatility by SVD severity (n=26-159, median = 74.5): arterial pulsatility index was generally higher in more severe SVD (e.g. MCA: standardized mean difference = 3.24, 95% confidence interval [2.40, 4.07]), although most did not match for age. Seventeen studies (n=9-700; median = 110) performed regression or correlation analysis, of which most showed that increased pulsatility was associated with SVD after adjustment for age. In conclusion, most studies support a cross-sectional association between higher pulsatility in large intracranial arteries and SVD. Future studies should minimize bias, adjust for potential confounders, include pulsatility in veins and CSF, and examine longitudinal relationship between pulsatility and SVD. Agreement on reliable measures of intracranial pulsatility would be helpful.

Keywords: Cerebral small vessel disease; Doppler Ultrasound; Phase-contrast MRI; Pulsatility; Systematic Review.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cerebral Small Vessel Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Intracranial Pressure / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Pulsatile Flow / physiology*
  • Ultrasonography, Doppler, Transcranial / methods