Clinician Article

Antithrombotic therapy to prevent cognitive decline in people with small vessel disease on neuroimaging but without dementia.

  • Kwan J
  • Hafdi M
  • Chiang LLW
  • Myint PK
  • Wong LS
  • Quinn TJ
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2022 Jul 14;7(7):CD012269. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012269.pub2. (Review)
PMID: 35833913
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  • Internal Medicine
    Relevance - 7/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Neurology
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7


BACKGROUND: Cerebral small vessel disease is a progressive disease of the brain's deep perforating blood vessels. It is usually diagnosed based on lesions seen on brain imaging. Cerebral small vessel disease is a common cause of stroke but can also cause a progressive cognitive decline. As antithrombotic therapy is an established treatment for stroke prevention, we sought to determine whether antithrombotic therapy might also be effective in preventing cognitive decline in people with small vessel disease.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects of antithrombotic therapy for prevention of cognitive decline in people with small vessel disease on neuroimaging but without dementia.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched ALOIS, the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Review Group's Specialised Register, and the Cochrane Stroke Group's Specialised Register; the most recent search was on 21 July 2021. We also searched MEDLINE, Embase, four other databases and two trials registries. We searched the reference lists of the articles retrieved from these searches. As trials with a stroke focus may include relevant subgroup data, we complemented these searches with a focussed search of all antithrombotic titles in the Cochrane Stroke Group database.  SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCT) of people with neuroimaging evidence of at least mild cerebral small vessel disease (defined here as white matter hyperintensities, lacunes of presumed vascular origin and subcortical infarcts) but with no evidence of dementia. The trials had to compare antithrombotic therapy of minimum 24 weeks' duration to no antithrombotic therapy (either placebo or treatment as usual), or compare different antithrombotic treatment regimens. Antithrombotic therapy could include antiplatelet agents (as monotherapy or combination therapy), anticoagulants or a combination.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently screened all the titles identified by the searches. We assessed full texts for eligibility for inclusion according to our prespecified selection criteria, extracted data to a proforma and assessed risk of bias using the Cochrane tool for RCTs. We evaluated the certainty of evidence using GRADE. Due to heterogeneity across included participants, interventions and outcomes of eligible trials, it was not possible to perform meta-analyses.

MAIN RESULTS: We included three RCTs (3384 participants). One study investigated the effect of antithrombotic therapy in participants not yet on antithrombotic therapy; two studies investigated the effect of additional antithrombotic therapy, one in a population already taking a single antithrombotic agent and one in a mixed population (participants on an antithrombotic drug and antithrombotic-naive participants). Intervention and follow-up durations varied from 24 weeks to four years. Jia 2016 was a placebo-controlled trial assessing 24 weeks of treatment with DL-3-n-butylphthalide (a compound with multimodal actions, including a putative antiplatelet effect) in 280 Chinese participants with vascular cognitive impairment caused by subcortical ischaemic small vessel disease, but without dementia. There was very low-certainty evidence for a small difference in cognitive test scores favouring treatment with DL-3-n-butylphthalide, as measured by the 12-item Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive subscale (adjusted mean difference -1.07, 95% confidence interval (CI) -2.02 to -0.12), but this difference may not be clinically relevant. There was also very low-certainty evidence for greater proportional improvement measured with the Clinician Interview-Based Impression of Change-Plus Caregiver Input (57% with DL-3-n-butylphthalide versus 42% with placebo; P = 0.01), but there was no difference in other measures of cognition (Mini-Mental State Examination and Clinical Dementia Rating) or function. There was no evidence of a difference in adverse events between treatment groups. The SILENCE RCT compared antithrombotic therapy (aspirin) and placebo during four years of treatment in 83 participants with 'silent brain infarcts' who were on no prior antithrombotic therapy. There was very low-certainty evidence for no difference between groups across various measures of cognition and function, rates of stroke or adverse events. The Secondary Prevention of Subcortical Stroke Study (SPS3) compared dual antiplatelet therapy (clopidogrel plus aspirin) to aspirin alone in 3020 participants with recent lacunar stroke. There was low-certainty evidence of no effect on cognitive outcomes as measured by the Cognitive Abilities Screening Instruments (CASI) assessed annually over five years. There was also low-certainty evidence of no difference in the annual incidence of mild cognitive decline between the two treatment groups (9.7% with dual antiplatelet therapy versus 9.9% with aspirin), or the annual stroke recurrence rate (2.5% with dual antiplatelet therapy versus 2.7% with aspirin). Bleeding risk may be higher with dual antiplatelet therapy (hazard ratio (HR) 2.15, 95% CI 1.49 to 3.11; low certainty evidence), but there may be no significant increase in intracerebral bleeding risk (HR 1.52, 95% CI 0.79 to 2.93; low-certainty evidence). None of the included trials assessed the incidence of new dementia.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: We found no convincing evidence to suggest any clinically relevant cognitive benefit of using antithrombotic therapy in addition to standard treatment in people with cerebral small vessel disease but without dementia, but there may be an increased bleeding risk with this approach. There was marked heterogeneity across the trials and the certainty of the evidence was generally poor.

Clinical Comments

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)


Internal Medicine

As there is no convincing evidence that taking blood thinning medications is beneficial for memory and thinking in people with cerebral small vessel disease, it is better to avoid dual antiplatelet therapy in cerebral small disease as bleeding risk may be higher.

Internal Medicine

As an Internist, I found this information useful for my every day clinical practice!


Interesting topic but inconclusive due to the high heterogeneity of the data and the low- or very low-degree certainty of the evidence. The treatment not only seems ineffective but also harmful due to the increased bleeding. Very useful in clinical practice.


This is a very good review that used very clear systematic and comprehensive ways to obtain and appraise the evidence. The review showed no convincing evidence to suggest any clinically relevant cognitive benefit from antithrombotic therapy in addition to standard treatment in people with cerebral small vessel disease but without dementia, and antithrombotic agents may increase bleeding risk. Further trials are needed for this condition.

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