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New ultrasound method gives better measure of vascular health

Researchers said detecting problem plaques in blood vessels earlier — before they are total blockages or break off and move — could help doctors intervene earlier to prevent adverse health events. Photo by hywards/Shutterstock

LUND, Sweden, March 23 (UPI) — Researchers in Sweden say they have devised a method of using ultrasound to calculate whether plaque in the carotid artery poses a health threat.

The Lund University scientists said the way plaques move in blood vessels indicates whether they are potentially harmful, making the ultrasound technique a potentially easier, non-invasive way to monitor vascular health.

Atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaques in blood vessels, affects about 3 million Americans and can lead to heart attack and stroke.

“Ultrasound enables you to screen a larger population, and that in turn means that life-threatening cardiovascular diseases can be detected at an earlier stage,” said Magnus Cinthio, a professor of biomedical engineering at Lund University, said in a press release.

Harmless plaques in blood vessels are made up of connective tissues and smooth muscle, while dangerous plaque is made up of lipids and macrophages. Determining the type of cell causing a blockage and then calculating whether it is unstable in the blood vessel can help doctors decide if surgery is necessary, even in the absence of excessive blockage, which is typically the only time surgery is done.

“We have shown that there is a strong correlation between changes in the center frequency and the size of the reflecting particles,” said Tobias Erlöv, a researcher at Lund University. “The more harmful substances, the greater the so-called center frequency shift.”

The inexpensive, non-invasive method of measurement requires more study, the researchers said, to confirm its validity. One study with about 1,500 patients is already being conducted by Summit, a European research group investigating biomarkers and other signals of vascular distress, as well as treatments for the conditions causing it.