A cerebral aneurysm occurs at a weak point in the wall of a blood vessel (artery) that supplies blood to the brain. Because of the flaw, the artery wall bulges outward and fills with blood. This bulge is called an aneurysm. An aneurysm can rupture, spilling blood into the surrounding body tissue. A ruptured cerebral aneurysm can cause permanent brain damage, disability, or death.
A cerebral aneurysm can occur anywhere in the brain. Aneurysms can have several shapes. The saccular aneurysm, once called a berry aneurysm, resembles a piece of fruit dangling from a branch. Saccular aneurysms are usually found at a branch in the blood vessel where they balloon out by a thin neck. Saccular cerebral aneurysms most often occur at the branch points of large arteries at the base of the brain. Aneurysms may also take the form of a bulge in one wall of the artery—a lateral aneurysm—or a widening of the entire artery—a fusiform aneurysm.
The greatest danger of aneurysms is rupture. Approximately 50–75% of stricken people survive an aneurysmal rupture. A ruptured aneurysm spills blood into the brain or into the fluid-filled area that surrounds the brain tissue. Bleeding into this area, called the subarachnoid space, is referred to as subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH). About 25,000 people suffer a SAH each year. It is estimated that people with unruptured aneurysm have an annual 1–2% risk of hemorrhage. Under age 40, more men experience SAH. After age 40, more women than men are affected.
Most people who have suffered a SAH from a ruptured aneurysm did not know that the aneurysm even existed. Based on autopsy studies, medical researchers estimate that 1–5% of the population has some type of cerebral aneurysm. Aneurysms rarely occur in the very young or the very old; about 60% of aneurysms are diagnosed in people between ages 40 and 65.
Some aneurysms may have a genetic link and run in families. The genetic link has not been completely proven and a pattern of inheritance has not been determined. Some studies seem to show that first-degree relatives of people who suffered aneurysmal SAH are more likely to have aneurysms themselves. These studies reported that such immediate family members were four times more likely to have aneurysms than the general population. Other studies do not confirm these findings. Better evidence links aneurysms to certain rare diseases of the connective tissue. These diseases include Marfan syndrome, pseudoxanthoma elasticum, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and fibromuscular dysplasia. Polycystic kidney disease is also associated with cerebral aneurysms.
These diseases are also associated with an increased risk of aneurysmal rupture. Certain other conditions raise
the risk of rupture, too. Most aneurysms that rupture are a half-inch or larger in diameter. Size is not the only factor, however, because smaller aneurysms also rupture. Cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and recreational drug use (for example, use of cocaine) have been linked with an increased risk. The role, if any, of high blood pressure has not been determined. Some studies have implicated high blood pressure in aneurysm formation and rupture, but people with normal blood pressure also experience aneurysms and SAHs. High blood pressure may be a risk factor but not the most important one. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery also seem to increase the possibility that an aneurysm might rupture, but not all doctors agree. Physical exertion and use of oral contraceptives are not suspected causes for aneurysmal rupture.
Julia Barrett, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,