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The clinical diagnosis of stroke is discussed in Chap. 426. Once this diagnosis is made and either a noncontrast computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan has been performed, rapid reversal of ischemia is paramount. This chapter will focus on the stroke treatment timeline and subsequent secondary stroke prevention.


Acute occlusion of an intracranial vessel causes reduction in blood flow to the brain region it supplies. The magnitude of flow reduction is a function of collateral blood flow, and this depends on individual vascular anatomy (which may be altered by disease), the site of occlusion, and systemic blood pressure. A decrease in cerebral blood flow to zero causes death of brain tissue within 4–10 min; values <16–18 mL/100 g tissue per minute cause infarction within an hour; and values <20 mL/100 g tissue per minute cause ischemia without infarction unless prolonged for several hours or days. If blood flow is restored to ischemic tissue before significant infarction develops, the patient may experience only transient symptoms, and the clinical syndrome is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Another important concept is the ischemic penumbra, defined as the ischemic but reversibly dysfunctional tissue surrounding a core area of infarction. The penumbra can be imaged by perfusion imaging using MRI or CT (see below and Figs. 426-12 and 426-13). The ischemic penumbra will eventually progress to infarction if no change in flow occurs, and hence, saving the ischemic penumbra is the goal of revascularization therapies.

Focal cerebral infarction occurs via two distinct pathways (Fig. 427-1): (1) a necrotic pathway in which cellular cytoskeletal breakdown is rapid, due principally to energy failure of the cell; and (2) an apoptotic pathway in which cells become programmed to die. Ischemia produces necrosis by starving neurons of glucose and oxygen, which in turn results in failure of mitochondria to produce ATP. Without ATP, membrane ion pumps stop functioning and neurons depolarize, allowing intracellular calcium to rise. Cellular depolarization also causes glutamate release from synaptic terminals; excess extracellular glutamate produces neurotoxicity by activating postsynaptic glutamate receptors that increase neuronal calcium influx. Ischemia also injures or destroys axons, dendrites, and glia within brain tissue. Free radicals are produced by degradation of membrane lipids and mitochondrial dysfunction. Free radicals cause catalytic destruction of membranes and likely damage other vital functions of cells. Lesser degrees of ischemia, as are seen within the ischemic penumbra, favor apoptotic cellular death, causing cells to die days to weeks later. Fever dramatically worsens brain injury during ischemia, as does hyperglycemia (glucose >11.1 mmol/L [200 mg/dL]), so it is reasonable to suppress fever and prevent hyperglycemia as much as possible. The value of induced mild hypothermia to improve stroke outcomes is the subject of continuing clinical research.

FIGURE 427-1

Major steps in the cascade of cerebral ischemia. See text for details. iNOS, ...

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