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Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension With Abnormal V/Q Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography

Original Research

J Am Coll Cardiol Img, 11 (10) 1487–1493

Graphical abstract



This study aimed to evaluate the incidence and clinical outcomes of abnormal ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) without thromboembolism, especially in patients with group I pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH).


American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology and European Society of Cardiology guidelines recommend V/Q scan for screening for chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension. The significance of patients with abnormal V/Q SPECT findings but no thromboembolism demonstrated in further investigations remained unclear. A distinct pattern of global patchy changes not typical of thromboembolism is recognized, but guidelines for reporting these in the context of PAH are lacking.


A total of 136 patients who underwent V/Q SPECT and right-sided heart catheterization showing mean pulmonary arterial pressure ≥25 mm Hg were included. V/Q SPECT findings were reported using European Association of Nuclear Medicine criteria for pulmonary embolism followed by computed tomography pulmonary angiography screening for positive thromboembolism and further invasive pulmonary angiography for distal thromboembolism. The abnormal V/Q SPECT images were further analyzed according to perfusion pattern into focal or global perfusion defects.


V/Q SPECT showed thromboembolic disease in 44 patients, but 19 of these patients had no thromboembolism demonstrated by pulmonary angiography. Among these patients, 15 of 19 (78.9%) had group I PAH, and the majority had diffuse, patchy perfusion defects. After redefining V/Q SPECT images according to the perfusion pattern, those patients with global perfusion defects had higher mean pulmonary arterial pressure compared with patients with focal perfusion defects and normal scans (mean difference +13.9 and +6.2 mm Hg, respectively; p = 0.0002), as well as higher pulmonary vascular resistance (mean difference +316.6 and +226.3 absolute resistance units, respectively; p = 0.004). Among patients with PAH, global perfusion defects were associated with higher all-cause mortality with a hazard ratio of 5.63 (95% confidence interval: 1.11 to 28.5) compared with patients with focal or no perfusion abnormalities.


There is a high incidence of abnormal V/Q SPECT scans in nonthromboembolic PAH. Further studies are needed to investigate the poor outcome associated with abnormal V/Q SPECT findings in the context of PAH.


Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a severe condition with a historically poor prognosis (1). With certain disease-modifying therapies and traditional therapies, and with heart-lung transplantation, the outcome has been altered radically in certain subgroups of patients. Chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH) is a cause of PH that is potentially treatable with anticoagulation and pulmonary endarterectomy (2). Therefore, the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association consensus (3) and the European Society of Cardiology guideline (2) both recommend ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) scan as a pivotal test in the initial assessment to screen for CTEPH. Further investigations such as computed tomography (CT) or conventional pulmonary angiography are then indicated if V/Q scan result is positive (2). In PH, planar V/Q scintigraphy has 97.4% sensitivity compared with 51% for CT pulmonary angiography (CTPA) for detection of chronic thromboembolic disease (4).

The advent of V/Q single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) has overcome some of the limitations of planar V/Q imaging, by offering even higher sensitivity (80% to 100%), specificity (93% to 100%), and accuracy (94%) in thromboembolic diseases (5). Compared with planar V/Q scans, the 3-dimensional tomography images from SPECT allow more accurate diagnosis of thromboembolic disease while differentiating other lung disorders such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, interstitial lung disease, and veno-occlusive disease (6). The European Association of Nuclear Medicine (EANM) established diagnostic criteria for interpreting thromboembolic disease on the basis of focal V/Q mismatches in segmental and subsegmental pulmonary arteries (7).

It is, however, recognized that patients with abnormal V/Q SPECT findings sometimes may not have significant thromboembolic disease demonstrated on confirmatory pulmonary angiography (8). Some patients also have abnormal patchy and heterogeneous perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT images that are difficult to classify (6,8,9). The functional significance of these abnormal V/Q SPECT results in pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) remains unclear. We sought to evaluate the incidence and clinical significance of abnormal V/Q SPECT findings in the context of patients with PAH who had no detectable thromboembolism observed during corroborating investigations.


Patient cohort and characterization of PH

Patients referred to the National Pulmonary Hypertension service at the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust in London, United Kingdom typically undergo V/Q scanning at the Royal Free Hospital if this has not been previously performed. Patients who underwent V/Q scan subsequent to 2013 were studied because SPECT V/Q was introduced at that date. We included all patients who had SPECT V/Q scanning between 2013 and January 2016 at the Royal Free Hospital within 3 months of their initial diagnostic right-sided heart catheterization (RHC) in this study. The study complied with the Declaration of Helsinki and was approved by the Institutional Review Board.

RHC was performed according to European Society of Cardiology guidelines (2). PH is defined as mean pulmonary arterial pressure ≥25 mm Hg on RHC (2). The cause of PH was defined according to World Health Organization classifications (10). Echocardiography was used to assess left-sided heart disease. Spirometry and CT scans of the chest were performed in all patients. We excluded patients clinically diagnosed with significant left-sided heart and lung disease.

V/Q SPECT were interpreted according to EANM criteria, and these patients were then screened for thromboembolic disease (Figure 1). The 6-min walking distance and functional class were assessed in all patients. We obtained data on whether therapy with pulmonary vasodilators was initiated and on whether the patient was treated with anticoagulation. The patients were followed up after V/Q SPECT, and RHC and all-cause mortality were recorded.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Diagnostic Screening for Excluding Thromboembolic Disease in Pulmonary Hypertension

CTEPH = chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension; CTPA = computed tomography pulmonary angiogram; mPAP = mean pulmonary arterial pressure; PH = pulmonary hypertension; RHC = right-sided heart catheterization; V/Q SPECT = ventilation-perfusion single-photon emission computed tomography.


V/Q SPECT scans were performed as part of the initial assessment. The scans were acquired using triple-head gamma camera (Philips Irix, Eindhoven, the Netherlands) equipped with low-energy, high-resolution, and parallel-hole collimators. Perfusion studies were performed after injection of 100 MBq of 99m-technetium (99mTc)-macroaggregated albumin (99mTc-MAA, MAA, CIS Bio International, Saclay, France; and 99mTc, Mallinckrodt Medical, Staines-upon-Thames, United Kingdom) during 2 respiratory cycles. Ventilation scans were performed during quiet tidal inhalation of 81 mKr (190 keV, Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, United Kingdom) or 99mTc-Technegas (140 keV, Cyclomedica, Kingsgrove, Australia). All scans were clinically reported by experienced nuclear medicine physicians at the Royal Free Hospital on the basis of clinical indications provided by the treating physicians at the time of the scan. “Positive scans” are those that meet the EANM reporting criteria for pulmonary thromboembolic disease (7). All scans were subsequently reviewed for the purposes of this study by 1 of the authors (M.H.) blinded to all clinical information. The scans were then reanalyzed according to the pattern of perfusion defect into: 1) normal scans with no perfusion defects; 2) focal perfusion defects that indicate segmental or subsegmental obstruction but not fulfilling EANM criteria for thromboembolism; and 3) global perfusion defects. Where there was a discrepancy between the 2 reports, the blinded report was used.

Statistical analysis

Continuous variables are summarized using the mean ± SE for normally distributed data and medians for non-normally distributed data. Categorical variables are described as a percentage and analyzed using the chi-square test or the Fisher exact test where appropriate. Linear regression model was used to compare between patients with abnormal V/Q SPECT but no thromboembolism and those with normal V/Q SPECT scans. For comparisons among 3 groups (normal, focal defect, and global defects on V/Q SPECT), 1-way analysis of variance test was used with Bonferroni post hoc analysis on significant associations. Analysis of covariance test was used for adjusted analyses. All analyses were performed with SPSS software version 17.0 (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, Illinois), and GraphPad Prism 6.0 (La Jolla, California).


High incidence of positive V/Q SPECT in nonthromboembolic PAH

A total of 244 patients underwent V/Q SPECT and RHC for PH assessment between 2013 and 2016; of these, 136 patients had PH confirmed on RHC. Suspected thromboembolism on V/Q SPECT was reported in 44 patients according to EANM criteria. After further corroborating investigations including CTPA-confirmed positive thromboembolism in 10 patients, and 10 patients had previous established diagnosis of CTEPH, 24 patients with no or negative CTPA results further underwent conventional pulmonary angiogram, which identified thromboembolism in 5 patients. This gives a total of 19 patients with positive V/Q SPECT but no thromboembolic disease detectable on conventional invasive pulmonary angiography, and 15 (78.9%) of these patients had group I PAH (Figure 1 and Table 1). Among those patients with negative V/Q SPECT, 60 (65.2%) patients had group I PAH. A total of 27 (29.3%) patients had anticoagulation at baseline for other comorbidities such as atrial fibrillation. There were no significant demographic differences or differences in pulmonary hemodynamics or baseline function (functional class or 6-min walk distance) between those patients with positive V/Q SPECT findings and those without (Figure 2).

Table 1. Baseline Characteristics for Patients With PH

Positive V/Q SPECT Without Thromboembolic Disease (n = 19)Negative V/Q SPECT for Thromboembolic Disease (n = 92)
Mean age, yrs59.8 ± 18.263.8 ± 15.1
Male2 (10.5)28 (30.4)
Group I (PAH)15 (78.9)60 (65.2)
1.1 Idiopathic2 (10.5)7 (7.6)
1.4.1 Systemic sclerosis8 (42.1)31 (33.7)
1.4.1 Other connective tissue disease2 (10.5)14 (23.3)
1.4.3 Portal hypertension0 (0.0)6 (10.0)
1’ Veno-occlusive disease2 (10.5)1 (1.7)
1.4.4 Secundum atrial septal defect with left-to-right shunt1 (5.6)1 (1.7)
Group II (left-sided heart disease)2 (11.1)17 (18.5)
Group III (lung disease)1 (5.3)11 (12.0)
Group V (unclear/multifactorial)1 (5.6)4 (4.3)
WHO functional class
I or II44.416.0
6MWD on initial assessment, m273.5 ± 174.7255.1 ± 134.0
Vasodilator15 (78.9)55 (59.8)
Baseline anticoagulation status11 (57.9)27 (29.3)

Values are mean ± SD, n (%), or %.

6MWD = 6-min walk distance; CTEPH = chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension; HIV = human immunodeficiency virus; PAH = pulmonary arterial hypertension; PH = pulmonary hypertension; SPECT = single-photon emission computed tomography; V/Q = ventilation/perfusion; WHO = World Health Organization.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Mean Pulmonary Arterial Pressure in Patients With Group I PAH With Positive V/Q SPECT Findings

According to European Association of Nuclear Medicine interpretation criteria, cases with thromboembolism demonstrable in pulmonary angiograms were excluded. The line denotes mean ± 95% confidence interval. +ve = positive; −ve = negative; PAH = pulmonary arterial hypertension; V/Q SPECT = ventilation-perfusion single-photon emission computed tomography.

Perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT are associated with hemodynamic severity

The V/Q SPECT imaging of the 75 patients with group I PAH were reanalyzed according to the pattern of perfusion defects (Figure 3). There were minimal discrepancies with an interclass correlation coefficient of 0.98 (95% confidence interval: 0.97 to 0.99). Most patients with focal perfusion defects had subsegmental mismatches, which are nondiagnostic for thromboembolism. The remaining patients with focal or global perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT all had CT pulmonary angiograms and targeted invasive pulmonary angiography in selected cases to exclude distal thromboembolisms. Compared with those patients with normal V/Q SPECT findings, there was more group I PAH in patients with global perfusion defects (chi-square test; p = 0.022), and in particular there were more patients with systemic sclerosis (Fisher exact test; p = 0.019). Among patients with group I PAH, analysis of variance testing among the 3 groups of perfusion defects showed significant differences in mPAP (F = 9.93; p = 0.0002), and pulmonary vascular resistance (PVR) (F = 5.9; p = 0.004) (Table 2 and Figure 4). The associations persisted after adjustment for multiple comparison with Bonferroni corrections. Post hoc analysis showed no significant differences between patients with normal V/Q and focal V/Q defects for both mPAP (p = 0.18) and PVR (p = 0.60). The associations remained significant after adjusting for vasodilator and baseline anticoagulation therapy, with mPAP (F = 7.48; p = 0.0011) and PVR (F = 3.80; p = 0.027), as well as after Bonferroni corrections. The associations were similar in a subgroup analysis focusing on patients with systemic sclerosis, mPAP (F = 8.27; p = 0.001), and PVR (F = 4.12; p = 0.023).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

V/Q SPECT Interpretation by Pattern of Perfusion Defects

(Left) Normal scan. (Middle) Focal wedge-shaped perfusion defect consistent with pulmonary embolism. (Right) Global heterogeneous perfusion defects with no embolism demonstrated in subsequent investigations. V/Q SPECT = ventilation-perfusion single-photon emission computed tomography.

Table 2. Associations Between V/Q SPECT Results and Right-Sided Heart Catheterization Hemodynamics in Patients With Group I PAH

Normal V/Q SPECTFocal Perfusion Defects on V/Q SPECTGlobal Perfusion Defects on V/Q SPECTp Value
Group I PAH62544
mPAP, mm Hg42.7 ± 4.235.0 ± 1.648.9 ± 2.20.0002
PCWP, mm Hg13.5 ± 6.910.9 ± 0.610.5 ± 0.50.14
PVR, ARU506.3 ± 129.7416.0 ± 45.9732.6 ± 65.40.004
Cardiac index, l/min/m23.0 ± 0.43.1 ± 0.22.80 ± 0.10.32
PA oxygen saturations, %66.3 ± 4.269.8 ± 1.966.2 ± 1.50.33

Values are n or mean ± SE.

ARU = absolute resistance unit; CO = cardiac output; mPAP = mean pulmonary arterial pressure; PCWP = pulmonary capillary wedge pressure; PVR = pulmonary vascular resistance; other abbreviations as in Table 1.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Mean Pulmonary Arterial Pressure in Patients With Group I PAH According to Perfusion Defects on V/Q SPECT

Difference in mean pulmonary artery pressure (mPAP) among different patterns of perfusion defects (*p < 0.001) and no significant differences (NS) between normal and focal defects on V/Q SPECT. Abbreviations as in Figure 2.

High mortality rate in group I PAH with global perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT

Patients were followed up for a median of 372.7 ± 200.0 days. Death of any cause (all-cause mortality) occurred in 6 patients with group I PAH, and all had global perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT. The underlying diagnosis of these patients included 3 with idiopathic PAH, 2 with systemic sclerosis, and 1 with another connective tissue disorder. Among patients with group I PAH, those with global perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT had significantly worse survival rate compared with those with normal or focal perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT (log-rank p = 0.037), with a hazard ratio of 5.63 (95% confidence interval: 1.11 to 28.50) calculated with the Mantel Haenszel approach described by Bernstein et al. (11) (Online Figures 1 to 3).


There was a high incidence (43.1%) of patients with PAH in our cohort with positive V/Q SPECT scan results but no thromboembolism demonstrable in corroborating investigations. After diagnostic screening in the 19 patients with positive V/Q SPECT findings, all had no detectable thromboembolism on conventional invasive pulmonary angiography, the current gold standard (12,13). None of the patients with negative V/Q SPECT results subsequently had thromboembolism detected with other modalities of investigations, a finding that demonstrates that the high negative predictive value of a normal V/Q scan also pertains to patients with PAH.

We found a false-positive rate of 43% (specificity 67%) among patients with PAH. A previous study looked at a mixed group of causes of PAH and found a lower false-positive rate of 5% to 10% when using planar V/Q scanning (4). Our study used V/Q SPECT, which offers better accuracy for detecting segmental and subsegmental pulmonary embolisms (5).

PAH is associated with pruning of pulmonary vessels, and in early nuclear medicine studies patchy perfusion defects were described (8,9). Attempts were also made to quantify the heterogeneity of perfusion defects, and this was shown to be predictive of pulmonary systolic pressures (14). We have found that these perfusion defects are often reported as pulmonary emboli by using current, sensitive V/Q SPECT scanning and contemporary reporting criteria.

Global perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT scanning were associated with a severe PAH phenotype, with more adverse pulmonary hemodynamics and higher mortality rates. This finding suggests that the V/Q scan may have utility beyond the exclusion of pulmonary thromboembolic disease. In particular, such global perfusion defects could reflect obliteration of distal pulmonary vessels, a pathological feature that anticipates progression to right ventricular failure (13,15). This could offer a noninvasive assessment to identify patients with more severe PAH. Prospective studies would be helpful to establish whether perfusion defects on V/Q scanning provide independent prognostic information and whether they may identify patients who would benefit from specific therapies.

Study limitations

The limitations of this study follow from its observational single-center design. Although invasive pulmonary angiograms were not routinely performed in all patients, we have described as false positive only those patients with negative results on conventional pulmonary angiograms and as true positive only patients whose CTEPH cases were confirmed with either CTPA or conventional pulmonary angiograms. The subgroup analysis included patients with group I PAH, who are still a heterogeneous group but nevertheless all have arterial stiffness or vasoconstriction. The correlations between V/Q SPECT and severity of PAH were also consistent when only patients with systemic sclerosis were included. The associations with PVR gave further mechanistic insight that V/Q SPECT images could be related to arterial disorders. Further studies of V/Q SPECT in subtypes of group I PAH are needed to investigate the correlation with the underlying pulmonary arterial disease. A larger series of patients studied prospectively will also be helpful to confirm the worse outcome of patients with global perfusion defects on V/Q SPECT.


Taken together, PAH is associated with frequent perfusion abnormalities detectable on V/Q SPECT scanning that are not the result of thromboembolic disease and that may reflect the severity of the disease as evidenced by worse pulmonary hemodynamics and poorer prognosis. Further prospective study of these associations is merited.


COMPETENCY IN MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE: In patients with PAH, there is a high incidence (43%) of positive V/Q SPECT findings but no demonstrable thromboembolism in corroborating pulmonary angiography. In the context of PAH, the presence of global perfusion defects on perfusion scanning is associated with worse pulmonary hemodynamics and clinical outcome, and this may be because these defects reflect more severe pulmonary vasculopathy.

TRANSLATIONAL OUTLOOK: V/Q scans are currently recommended by guidelines as screening tools for CTEPH. Insights into the interpretation of perfusion defects in PAH provide a noninvasive method to assess disease severity and progression and to guide treatment options.

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Abbreviations and Acronyms


computed tomography


chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension


computed tomography pulmonary angiography


European Association of Nuclear Medicine


pulmonary arterial hypertension


pulmonary vascular resistance


right-sided heart catheterization


single-photon emission computed tomography




Dr. Hall is a former employee of GE Healthcare. All other authors have reported that they have no relationships relevant to the contents of this paper to disclose.