Recently occluded intracranial and extracranial carotid arteries. Relevance of the unstable atherosclerotic plaque

G A Lammie, P A Sandercock, M S Dennis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: It is now widely accepted that thrombotic coronary artery occlusion usually follows rupture of an unstable atherosclerotic plaque. The significance of such instability in arteries supplying the brain is less well appreciated. We therefore describe the clinical and pathological features of recent, symptomatic internal carotid artery occlusion to examine the pathogenetic role of plaque instability at both extracranial and intracranial sites.

METHODS: Cases were selected from a consecutive series of 188 adult neuropathology autopsies. In 90 of these, the principal neuropathological abnormality was cerebral infarction, in 14 cases due to recent occlusion of 1 or more segments of the internal carotid artery. In each case, a full systemic, cardiovascular, and neuropathological autopsy was performed. Plaque instability was assessed by the presence or absence of a large, necrotic, lipid core; a thin, fibrous cap; and superficial inflammation.

RESULTS: Of the 14 cases, 3 showed extracranial (carotid sinus), 7 intracranial, and 4 both extracranial and intracranial carotid artery occlusion. In 6 of the 7 occluded carotid sinuses, thrombus overlay an ulcerated, unstable, atherosclerotic plaque. In 1 extracranial and all 11 intracranial occlusions, there was either no atheroma or a mildly stenotic, stable, fibrous plaque, and in these cases, the cause of occlusion was embolism (8 cases), giant-cell arteritis (1 case), and unknown (3 cases).

CONCLUSIONS: Coronary-type rupture of an unstable atherosclerotic plaque is the usual cause of fatal occlusion of the carotid sinus, but other causes usually underlie intracranial carotid occlusion. The nature and consequences of intracranial atherosclerosis require further study.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1319-25
Number of pages7
JournalStroke; a journal of cerebral circulation
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 1999


  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Carotid Artery Thrombosis
  • Carotid Artery, External
  • Carotid Artery, Internal
  • Cerebral Infarction
  • Female
  • Fibrosis
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Necrosis
  • Ulcer

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