Background Noninvasive detection of plaque lipid and calcium in human atherosclerosis may have clinical utility, because the presence of each may be associated with increased risk of plaque disruption. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has the potential to detect both plaque lipid and calcium. However, no previous studies have: 1) used an MR coil with sufficient resolution to image the components of human coronary arteries, 2) evaluated the utility of a combination of different MR contrast weightings in discriminating plaque components in human coronary arteries, or 3) used sensitive and specific histological stains for lipid and calcium to determine their MR image characteristics in human atherosclerosis.
Methods Using a custom-made surface coil on a whole-body, 1.5T MRI scanner, high resolution MR images were obtained from 22 nonatherosclerotic and atherosclerotic human coronary artery segments and then compared with histological sections stained for neutral lipid, calcium, and fibrous and cellular components.
Results With a multicontrast protocol using T1-, proton density-, and T2-weighted images, statistically significant differences were found among MR image contrast values for regions identified by histological stains as containing lipid only, calcium only, mixed lipid and calcium, or fibrous tissue. All four of these histologically defined region types could be differentiated from one another by a multicontrast MRI protocol. Of the 22 segments, 10 (45%) contained areas with combined plaque lipid and calcium; calcium would not have been recognized histologically in these regions without the use of a specific calcium stain.
Conclusions These results demonstrate that multicontrast MRI can produce remarkably high-resolution images and can discriminate between clinically relevant components of the atherosclerotic vessel wall.