Background and purpose: Embolism is believed to be the major cause of stroke in patients with nonvalvular atrial fibrillation (NVAF). The detection of asymptomatic embolic signals (ES) in individuals with NVAF might allow identification of patients at high risk of stroke and monitoring of therapy in individual subjects. We determined the frequency of asymptomatic ES in patients with NVAF who were not taking warfarin.
Methods: Bilateral transcranial Doppler recordings were made for 1 hour from the middle cerebral arteries of 111 successive patients with NVAF taking aspirin alone or no antithrombotic or anticoagulant therapy. Adequate recordings could be made in 86 patients. In 79 subjects, recordings were performed on a second occasion to study temporal variability. Recordings for a single hour were also made in 30 age-matched control subjects.
Results: ES were detected in 13 (15.1%) of NVAF subjects but in no control subjects (P=0.02). ES were detected both in subjects with symptomatic NVAF (4 of 30 [13.1%], P=0.04 versus controls) and asymptomatic NVAF (9 of 56 [16.1%], P=0.02 versus controls). There was no correlation between the presence of ES and smoking status, diabetes, hypertension, aspirin use, aspirin dose, symptomatic status, left atrial size, left ventricular function, or the presence of left atrial thrombus detected on transthoracic echocardiography. Repeating the recording increased the number of patients with ES to 21 (26.6%). On considering the results of both recordings, again there was no association for either recording between the presence of ES and smoking status, diabetes, hypertension, aspirin use, aspirin dose, age, symptomatic status, left atrial size, or left ventricular function. On repeating the recording, in the symptomatic group only 2 patients (8%) changed status, in contrast to 15 (29%) in the asymptomatic group.
Conclusions: ES can be detected in patients with NVAF at a low frequency. Particularly in asymptomatic patients, ES show marked temporal variability. We found no correlation between the presence of previously reported clinical and echocardiographic markers of increased stroke risk and the presence of ES. This association requires further investigation before the clinical utility of this technique in patients with NVAF is decided.