Evolving understanding of the heterogeneous natural history of individual coronary artery plaques and the role of local endothelial shear stress

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Purpose of review

Anatomic and morphologic features of high-risk coronary plaque have been identified by novel imaging modalities, but it has been less clear which ostensibly high-risk plaques will actually destabilize and cause a new cardiac event. Different plaques with different morphologies coexist within the same artery, but the impact of this heterogeneity on the natural history of coronary artery disease has not been extensively investigated.

Recent findings

Coronary plaques exhibit remarkable heterogeneity of local morphological and blood-flow patterns, including endothelial shear stress (ESS), along their longitudinal axis, with important implications for the heterogeneous natural history of coronary disease. The natural history of individual plaques is considerably divergent, with most plaques, even ostensibly high-risk plaques, becoming quiescent and only a minority progressing to destabilize and precipitate a new clinical event. Local areas of proinflammatory low ESS appear to be an important condition for plaque destabilization.


Characterization of an individual atherosclerotic plaque based on a snapshot of morphological features at a specific location, such as the minimal lumen diameter, may not be sufficiently comprehensive to accurately reflect the risk associated with that plaque. A detailed assessment of both anatomical and functional pathobiologic characteristics in the longitudinal plaque dimension may enhance our understanding of atherosclerosis progression and improve the management of individual patients with coronary artery disease.

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