4D Flow MRI: Another Dimension for Congenital Heart Disease

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 - 4d Flow image
4D flow magnetic resonance imaging can be used for cardiovascular and cranial applications. Source: Michael Markl, PhD; reprinted with permission.

4D flow magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) offers striking visuals of blood flow in the heart and vessels but as yet has not found a foothold in clinical practice. Congenital heart disease, and in particular the bicuspid aortic valve, may provide its point of entry.

The big (and beautiful) picture

4D flow MRI made a splash in the imaging world more than a decade ago when Michael Markl, PhD, then a post doc in radiology at Stanford University in California, teamed up with engineers to demonstrate the feasibility of time-resolved, 3D phase-contrast MRI of the heart (J Magn Reson Imaging 2003;17[4]:499-506). The technique—3D plus time—was considered an improvement over 2D imaging because it provided complete spatial and temporal coverage of an area of interest, capturing all of the regions, phases and directions of blood flow. The volumetric technique allowed physicians to both visualize and quantify flow. 

The heart was a logical target, says Markl, who is now a professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at Northwestern University and director of cardiovascular MRI research operations at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “The easiest application is to start with the vessels and the largest compartment we have in the body,” he says.

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Within the cardiac realm, congenital heart disease also seemed like a good fit. Abnormalities, whether from defects at birth or consequent interventions or both, may force blood to flow in unexpected directions and patterns. Doppler echocardiography can assess flow but it provides only a 2D snapshot of one-dimensional velocities. Conventional 2D phase-contrast MRI can be used to quantify flow volumes, but it requires patients to hold their breath and, because the imaging plane must be predetermined, the data will include only abnormal flow within those parameters. 4D flow MRI, on the other hand, allows patients to breathe freely and blood flow can be studied retrospectively through any planes of interest.   

“To capture what is going on in these [congenital heart] diseases, you really need to quantify flow in multiple locations and this technique lends itself to do that,” Markl says.

The results are visually captivating. Using 4D flow MRI, researchers have been able to compare hemodynamics in healthy and diseased patients and produce colorful images and striking videos. Cardiologists, already trained in reading MRI and 2D and 3D echo scans, intuitively understand the imagery, Markl says.    

Michael D. Hope, MD, co-director of the Vascular Imaging Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco, calls the visuals “a beautiful thing … where you see complex blood flow unfold over time.” When he was a medical student at Stanford in the early 2000s, Hope joined Markl’s research team and is a co-author on a 4D flow cardiovascular MR consensus statement that outlined potential clinical applications for the technique (J Cardiovasc Magn Reson 2015;17:22). The challenge now is transitioning 4D flow from a validated and accurate research tool into clinical practice. 

To succeed, proponents need to show its practical value above existing techniques, Hope says. “Part of the problem with advanced imaging is you can see things that are great, but if the information is redundant compared to the more standard [approaches], why would you bother with the effort of putting together all the complex images?”

4D flow has its drawbacks. A scan can take five to 15 minutes and, if the case is complex, it may be as long as 30 minutes, Markl says. That’s an improvement over its earlier days but still longer than the relatively short time required for a conventional MRI. 4D flow may be advantageous, though, Hope says, if multiple 2D scans are required because then the technologist must repeatedly readjust the scanner and reinstruct the patient about breath holds.

In the clinical setting, physicians expect results from scans to be available quickly, which presently is not the case with 4D flow, Markl says. “The data analysis is not terribly complicated; it is just not well integrated. The reason is that it has been developed at academic institutions and our focus is more on research questions. … We are not software developers who generate easy-to-use user interfaces that can be used clinically.”

Building a case for 4D flow

Congenital heart disease is the most common birth defect in the U.S., and the bicuspid aortic valve is considered the most common abnormality, with prevalence between 1