Big strokes in small persons

Robert J Adams
Archives of Neurology 2007, 64 (11): 1567-74
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is understood on a genetic and a molecular level better than most diseases. Young children with SCD are at a very high risk of stroke. The molecular pathologic abnormalities of SCD lead to microvascular occlusion and intravascular hemolytic anemia. Microvascular occlusion is related to painful episodes and probably causes microcirculatory problems in the brain. The most commonly recognized stroke syndrome in children with SCD is large-artery infarction. These "big strokes" are the result of a vascular process involving the large arteries of the circle of Willis leading to territorial infarctions from perfusion failure or possibly artery-to-artery embolism. We can detect children who are developing cerebral vasculopathy using transcranial Doppler ultrasonography (TCD) and can provide effective intervention. Transcranial Doppler ultrasonography measures blood flow velocity in the large arteries of the circle of Willis. Velocity is generally increased by the severe anemia in these patients, and it becomes elevated in a focal manner when stenosis reduces the arterial diameter. Children with SCD who are developing high stroke risk can be detected months to years before the stroke using TCD. Healthy adults have a middle cerebral artery velocity of approximately 60 cm/s, whereas children without anemia have velocities of approximately 90 cm/s. In SCD, the mean is approximately 130 cm/s. Two independent studies have demonstrated that the risk of stroke in children with SCD increases with TCD velocity. The Stroke Prevention Trial in Sickle Cell Anemia (STOP) (1995-2000) was halted prematurely when it became evident that regular blood transfusions produced a marked (90%) reduction in first stroke. Children were selected for STOP if they had 2 TCD studies with velocities of 200 cm/s or greater. Children not undergoing transfusion had a stroke risk of 10% per year, which was reduced to less than 1% per year by regular blood transfusions. Stroke risk in all children with SCD is approximately 0.5% to 1.0% per year. On the basis of STOP, if the patient meets the high-risk TCD criteria, regular blood transfusions are recommended. A second study was performed (2000-2005) to attempt withdrawal of transfusion in selected children in a randomized controlled study. Children with initially abnormal TCD velocities (> or =200 cm/s) treated with regular blood transfusion for 30 months or more, which resulted in reduction of the TCD to less than 170 cm/s, were eligible for randomization into STOP II. Half continued transfusion and half had cessation of transfusion. This trial was halted early for safety reasons. There was an unacceptably high rate of TCD reversion back to high risk (> or =200 cm/s), as well as 2 strokes in children who discontinued transfusion. There are no evidence-based guidelines for the discontinuation of transfusion in children once they have been identified as having high risk based on TCD. The current situation is undesirable because of the long-term effects of transfusion, including iron overload. Iron overload has recently become easier to manage with the introduction of an oral iron chelator. The inflammatory environment known to exist in SCD and the known effect of plasma free hemoglobin, released by hemolysis, of reducing available nitric oxide may contribute to the development of cerebrovascular disease. Further research may lead to more targeted therapies. We can reduce many of the big strokes that occur in these small persons by aggressively screening patients at a young age (and periodically throughout the childhood risk period) and interrupting the process with regular blood transfusions.

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