Cardiovascular malformations and diseases are common but complex and often not yet fully understood. To better understand the effects of structural and microstructural changes of the heart and the vasculature on their proper functioning, a detailed characterization of the microstructure is crucial. In vivo imaging approaches are noninvasive and allow visualizing the heart and the vasculature in 3D. However, their spatial image resolution is often too limited for microstructural analyses, and hence, ex vivo imaging is preferred for this purpose. Ex vivo X-ray microfocus computed tomography (microCT) is a rapidly emerging high-resolution 3D structural imaging technique often used for the assessment of calcified tissues. Contrast-enhanced microCT (CE-CT) or phase-contrast microCT (PC-CT) improve this technique by additionally allowing the distinction of different low X-ray-absorbing soft tissues. In this review, we present the strengths of ex vivo microCT, CE-CT and PC-CT for quantitative 3D imaging of the structure and/or microstructure of the heart, the vasculature and their substructures in healthy and diseased state. We also discuss their current limitations, mainly with regard to the contrasting methods and the tissue preparation.
Keywords: ex vivo; heart; microCT; morphometrics; structural characterization; vasculature.