Problems with learning, memory, thinking and decision-making could be linked to narrowing of the neck’s carotid artery, according to new research presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA.

The American Academy of Neurology have previously published research in their journal Neurology that explored using individuals’ stroke risk profile – which includes high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes – to predict whether people would develop memory and thinking problems later in life.

However, this is the first research to specifically link narrowing of the carotid arteries – the two major blood vessels that deliver blood to the brain – to memory and thinking problems.

Most clinical investigation of the carotid arteries relates to when the arteries become blocked by fatty, waxy deposits or “plaque” – which is known to cause stroke or transient ischemic attack.

When these arteries become narrowed, as well as restricting the flow of blood to the brain, little pieces of plaque can also be showered into the brain.

“To date, the focus of diagnosis and management of carotid artery blockages has been prevention of stroke since that was the only harm that these blockages were thought to cause to patients,” says Dr. Brajesh K. Lal, from VA Maryland Health Care System’s Baltimore VA Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

“These results underscore the importance of assessing the status of memory and thinking in people with carotid artery narrowing,” Dr. Lal adds.

diagram depicting the carotid arteriesShare on Pinterest
This is the first research to link narrowing of the carotid arteries – the two major blood vessels that deliver blood to the brain – to memory and thinking problems.

Dr. Lal and his team of researchers assessed 67 patients with asymptomatic carotid stenosis (ACS), and 60 people with risk factors for ACS – such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and coronary artery disease – but without the condition. The ACS patients had a reduction of 50% in the diameter of their carotid artery.

Both groups were tested for processing speed, learning, memory, decision-making, language and overall thinking abilities.

The patients who had ACS performed “significantly worse” on the memory and thinking tests – particularly on the tests for processing speed and language.

The study found no difference, however, in the language abilities of the two groups.

Though this was a small observational study, Dr. Lal considers his team’s findings to be significant:

“If these findings are confirmed in larger studies, they hold significant implications for new treatment targets and open the door for more questions, such as: should these patients be treated more aggressively with medications, cognitive rehabilitation or even surgery to open up the artery.

“I anticipate a large number of follow-up studies searching for causes and the best treatment option for this newly identified morbidity associated with carotid narrowing,” Dr. Lal says.

In 2013, Medical News Today reported on research from the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, suggesting that snoring increases risk of abnormalities that can lead to hardening of the carotid arteries.