What is cerebral angiography?

Cerebral angiography is a procedure that makes a detailed picture (angiogram) of the blood vessels in the brain. Doctors use cerebral angiography to study blood vessels in your brain that are obstructed, blocked, narrowed, enlarged or malformed, and diagnose the underlying cause.

Cerebral angiography is only one method used to diagnose a variety of cerebrovascular diseases, disorders and conditions. Discuss all the testing options with your doctor to understand which options are right for you.  

Types of cerebral angiography

The types of cerebral angiography procedures include:

  • Cerebral angiography is an angiographic procedure that involves inserting a catheter into a blood vessel in the groin or arm. The catheter wire is then fed, or guided to the area in the brain to be examined. X-rays are used to produce the angiogram, or picture of the vessel.  Contrast or dye is injected into the catheter to produce images of the blood vessels in your brain.
  • Noninvasive cerebral angiography uses computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to produce the angiogram. MRI of blood vessels is also called magnetic resonance angiography, or MRA. CT involves X-rays but MRA does not.

A cerebral angiogram, and in some cases, noninvasive cerebral angiography, use a contrast agent. This is sometimes called a dye. The dye is given intravenously (through an IV). The contrast agent improves the quality of the images.

Why is cerebral angiography performed? 

Your doctor may recommend a cerebral angiography to diagnose diseases and conditions of the blood vessels in the brain including:

  • Aneurysms, which are weakened or diseased areas of a blood vessel that become enlarged or bulge. Aneurysms can lead to serious or life threatening bleeding if they rupture or burst. 
  • Atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries
  • Blood clots, which can cause a stroke
  • Blood vessel malformations, which are usually present at birth and may become a problem at various ages from birth to adulthood
  • Brain tumors. A doctor may order cerebral angiography to confirm a brain tumor or learn what blood vessels are connected to the tumor.
  • Cerebrovascular disease, including stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA, a condition in which a person has temporary stroke-like symptoms)
  • Dissection or splitting of the layers of the blood vessel walls leading to the brain
  • Pre-surgery evaluation. A doctor may order cerebral angiography to evaluate the blood vessels in the head and neck before brain surgery or other invasive treatment.
  • Vasculitis, which is an inflammation of the blood vessels that can occur in the brain

Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on cerebral angiography.

Who performs cerebral angiography?

The following specialists perform catheter cerebral angiography:

  • Neuroradiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases of the nervous system using catheter-based procedures and imaging techniques. 
  • Neurosurgeons specialize in the surgical care of diseases of the brain and nervous system.
  • Pediatric neurosurgeons specialize in the surgical care of children with diseases and conditions of the brain and nervous system.
  • Vascular and interventional radiologists specialize in the treatment of blood vessel and other conditions using catheter-based procedures and imaging techniques. 
  • Vascular neurologists specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases and conditions of the blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord.

A noninvasive cerebral angiography is performed by a radiologist or a radiologic technologist. A radiologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases and injuries using medical imaging techniques. A radiologic technologist is a medical professional who is specialized in medical imaging and the care of patients during imaging procedures.

How is cerebral angiography performed?

Your cerebral angiography will be performed in a hospital or outpatient setting. The procedure takes from one to three hours and generally includes these steps: