Small vessel disease burden and intracerebral haemorrhage in patients taking oral anticoagulants

J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2021 Mar 19;92(8):805-814. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2020-325299. Online ahead of print.


Objective: We investigated the contribution of small vessel disease (SVD) to anticoagulant-associated intracerebral haemorrhage (ICH).

Methods: Clinical Relevance of Microbleeds in Stroke-2 comprised two independent multicentre observation studies: first, a cross-sectional study of patients with ICH; and second, a prospective study of patients taking anticoagulants for atrial fibrillation (AF) after cerebral ischaemia. In patients with ICH, we compared SVD markers on CT and MRI according to prior anticoagulant therapy. In patients with AF and cerebral ischaemia treated with anticoagulants, we compared the rates of ICH and ischaemic stroke according to SVD burden score during 2 years follow-up.

Results: We included 1030 patients with ICH (421 on anticoagulants), and 1447 patients with AF and cerebral ischaemia. Medium-to-high severity SVD was more prevalent in patients with anticoagulant-associated ICH (CT 56.1%, MRI 78.7%) than in those without prior anticoagulant therapy (CT 43.5%, p<0.001; MRI 64.5%, p=0.072). Leukoaraiosis and atrophy were more frequent and severe in ICH associated with prior anticoagulation. In the cerebral ischaemia cohort (779 with SVD), during 3366 patient-years of follow-up the rate of ICH was 0.56%/year (IQR 0.27-1.03) in patients with SVD, and 0.06%/year (IQR 0.00-0.35) in those without (p=0.001); ICH was independently associated with severity of SVD (HR 5.0, 95% CI 1.9 to 12.2,p=0.001), and was predicted by models including SVD (c-index 0.75, 95% CI 0.63 to 0.85).

Conclusions: Medium-to-high severity SVD is associated with ICH occurring on anticoagulants, and independently predicts ICH in patients with AF taking anticoagulants; its absence identifies patients at low risk of ICH. Findings from these two complementary studies suggest that SVD is a contributory factor in ICH in patients taking anticoagulants and suggest that anticoagulation alone should no longer be regarded as a sufficient 'cause' of ICH.

Trial registration: NCT02513316.

Associated data