Inflammation and cerebral small vessel disease: A systematic review.


Inflammation is increasingly implicated as a risk factor for dementia, stroke, and small vessel disease (SVD). However, the underlying mechanisms and causative pathways remain unclear. We systematically reviewed the existing literature on the associations between markers of inflammation and SVD (i.e., white matter hyperintensities (WMH), lacunes, enlarged perivascular spaces (EPVS), cerebral microbleeds (CMB)) in cohorts of older people with good health, cerebrovascular disease, or cognitive impairment. Based on distinctions made in the literature, markers of inflammation were classified as systemic inflammation (e.g. C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, fibrinogen) or vascular inflammation/endothelial dysfunction (e.g. homocysteine, von Willebrand factor, Lp-PLA2). Evidence from 82 articles revealed relatively robust associations between SVD and markers of vascular inflammation, especially amongst stroke patients, suggesting that alterations to the endothelium and blood-brain barrier may be a driving force behind SVD. Conversely, cross-sectional findings on systemic inflammation were mixed, although longitudinal investigations demonstrated that elevated levels of systemic inflammatory markers at baseline predicted subsequent SVD severity and progression. Importantly, regional analysis revealed that systemic and vascular inflammation were differentially related to two distinct forms of SVD. Specifically, markers of vascular inflammation tended to be associated with SVD in areas typical of hypertensive arteriopathy (e.g., basal ganglia), while systemic inflammation appeared to be involved in CAA-related vascular damage (e.g., centrum semiovale). Nonetheless, there is insufficient data to establish whether inflammation is causal of, or secondary to, SVD. Findings have important implications on interventions, suggesting the potential utility of treatments targeting the brain endothelium and blood brain barrier to combat SVD and associated neurodegenerative diseases.