Combining CT scans with artificial intelligence to assess cardiovascular health



Plaque buildup in the arteries is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease and raises the likelihood of experiencing a heart attack or stroke. People normally have a CT scan of the heart to assess risk, but these exams are time-consuming and require manual measurements, additional medical appointments, and exposure to small amounts of radiation. At the same time, millions of patients regularly receive CT scans of their abdomens for other complaints, such as abdominal pain. Therefore, using abdominal CT scans to measure arterial plaque buildup would enable regular cardiovascular risk assessment without the need for additional scans. However, researchers have so far lacked appropriate technology and data sets to develop a reliable automated technique for measuring plaque buildup in this way.


IRP senior investigator Ronald M. Summers, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues have developed a method that uses deep learning, a type of artificial intelligence, to accurately measure the plaque buildup shown on abdominal CT scans. The automated measurements made by their method were shown to be equivalent to manual measurements by a physician, and the automated measurements can be made rapidly without the need for time-consuming and costly manual measurements. The measurements could also be performed accurately on CT scans obtained either with or without the injection of intravenous agents used to improve contrast on scan images.


This research enables the rapid and accurate determination of plaque buildup in arteries using the most commonly performed types of abdominal CT scans in the US. With further research, this finding could lead to improved prediction of risk factors for heart attack and stroke in patients undergoing abdominal CT scans for other purposes. With the knowledge gained using this technique, individual patients could receive drug treatment or lifestyle recommendations that could reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke and increase their lifespan.


Summers RM, Elton DC, Lee S, Zhu Y, Liu J, Bagheri M, Sandfort V, Grayson PC, Mehta NN, Pinto PA, Linehan WM, Perez AA, Graffy PM, O’Connor SD, Pickhardt PJ. (2021). Atherosclerotic plaque burden on abdominal CT: Automated assessment with deep learning on noncontrast and contrast-enhanced scans. Acad Radiol. 28:1491–1499. doi: 10.1016/j.acra.2020.08.022.

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This page was last updated on Thursday, June 8, 2023