Atherosclerosis, the pathological process underlying myocardial infarction, stroke and other occlusive vascular disease, is the major cause of death in the Western world. The development of techniques to accurately and reproducibly detect and measure the early changes of atherosclerosis and/or to identify subjects at highest cardiovascular risk may aid in the development of prevention strategies and facilitate a decrease in morbidity and mortality from atherosclerosis. Increasing understanding of the pathophysiology of early atherosclerosis has allowed the development of a number of potential methods for the assessment of the early stages of atherosclerosis in humans. These include techniques for assessing early structural changes in the coronary arteries with electron-beam computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. External vascular ultrasound has also been used to image other circulations as a surrogate marker for coronary atherosclerosis, e.g. the measurement of carotid artery intima-media thickness. Early functional changes of atherosclerosis have also been described many years before the development of structural changes. A number of techniques have been developed to measure endothelial dysfunction, one of the earliest changes of atherosclerosis, including non-invasive measurement of endothelial function using external vascular ultrasound. A variety of serum markers have also been described, and may be useful markers of atherosclerosis. We discuss some of the more promising techniques for the detection of early, presymptomatic atherosclerosis.

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