Rapid MRI for VP Shunt Evaluation

Rapid MRI

VP Shunts have greatly benefited many children with hydrocephalus.  Unfortunately, VP shunts can have complications… and we have discussed some of them before (Tapping a VP Shunt).  The evaluation of a child with a VP shunt who is not critically ill (and not in need of having the shunt tapped emergently) often involves obtaining plain films of the shunt as well as a Head CT to assess ventricle size.  This, unfortunately, often leads to numerous CT scans in a child’s life, which, as we know (Medical Radiation Exposure) can be a big deal.  Is there any other option to assess ventricle size for kids with VP shunts?

 The Issue

  • The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimate that hydrocephalus affects ~ 1 in every 500 children.
  • Children with hydrocephalus get many neuro imaging studies.
    • They get routine surveillance images.
    • They get emergent imaging when there is concern for complications.
    • Ashley’s (see references) estimated that patients with hydrocephalus “will have nearly 4 scans per year during childhood.”
    • Koral’s study esimated the “mean annual neuroimaging study frequency” as 2.1.
  • Children are at greater risk of developing a malignancy form medical radiation than older patients.
  • From a population standpoint, the use of CT imaging for this population generates a lot of potential risk.


Rapid MRI

  • Seems like the “Rapid” and “MRI” do not belong together… but, in fact they do… and have been possible for several years now.
  • Standard MRI:
    • Certainly can evaluate the ventricles and shunt positioning well, but…
    • Takes entirely too long,
    • Requires sedation (which is suboptimal when you are in need of re-assessing the kids neuro status).
  • Rapid-Sequence MRI:
    • Individual image slice acquisition time = 500 msec… roughly equivalent to one rotation of CT scanner.
      • Ashley’s Total procedure time was 2.5 times longer than CT, but also generates images in three planes.
      • Miller’s Total scanning time was ~150 seconds.
    • Due to speed, it does not require sedation and can render high-quality images that are free of motion artifact.
      • Majority of study populations have been with children less than 5 years of age!
    • Cost?
      • At institution where Ashley’s research was done, cost was $120 more than CT ($900 vs $781).
      • Significantly less than Standard MRI ($1718).  {obviously, these cost are institution dependent.}
    • Does it work?
      • Can image the ventricles well.
      • Some studies show a decreased ability to visualize the catheter.
        • There are various protocols that are being looked at improving the ability to define the catheter location.
        • “Steady-State Gradient Recalled-Echo Sequences” in rapid MRI protocols have been found to be able to better delineate the shunt catheter than “standard” rapid MRI.

Bottom line: The literature would support the use of these rapid MRI protocols.  Your specific institution and your Neurosurgeons might not.  But, in an effort to continue to image responsibly (along the lines of the Image Gently campaign), it may be useful to discuss with your teams the use of rapid MRI in the evaluation of patients with VP shunts.



Iskandar BJ, Sansone JM, Medow J, Rowley HA. The use of quick-brain magnetic resonance imaging in the evaluation of shunt-treated hydrocephalus. J Neurosurg. 2004 Nov;101(2 Suppl):147-51. PMID: 15835101. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Ashley WW Jr, McKinstry RC, Leonard JR, Smyth MD, Lee BC, Park TS. Use of rapid-sequence magnetic resonance imaging for evaluation of hydrocephalus in children. J Neurosurg. 2005 Aug;103(2 Suppl):124-30. PMID: 16370277. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Miller JH, Walkiewicz T, Towbin RB, Curran JG. Improved delineation of ventricular shunt catheters using fast steady-state gradient recalled-echo sequences in a rapid brain MR imaging protocol in nonsedated pediatric patients. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2010 Mar;31(3):430-5. PMID: 19942705. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

O’Neill BR, Pruthi S, Bains H, Robison R, Weir K, Ojemann J, Ellenbogen R, Avellino A, Browd SR. Rapid Sequence Magnetic Resonance Imaging in the Assessment of Children with Hydrocephalus. World Neurosurg. 2012 Oct 27. PMID: 23111234. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Koral K, Blackburn T, Bailey AA, Koral KM, Anderson J. Strengthening the argument for rapid brain MR imaging: estimation of reduction in lifetime attributable risk of developing fatal cancer in children with shunted hydrocephalus by instituting a rapid brain MR imaging protocol in lieu of Head CT. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2012 Nov;33(10):1851-4. PMID: 22555583. [PubMed] [Read by QxMD]

Sean M. Fox
Sean M. Fox

I enjoy taking care of patients and I finding it endlessly rewarding to help train others to do the same. I trained at the Combined Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics residency program at University of Maryland, where I had the tremendous fortune of learning from world renowned educators and clinicians. Now I have the unbelievable honor of working with an unbelievably gifted group of practitioners at Carolinas Medical Center. I strive every day to inspire my residents as much as they inspire me.

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  1. I have a VP shunt and I work in the MRI department. I stay far away from the machine. However, I am in the next room where scans are on the computer. Is it safe for me to be in the MRI part of the building, even though I’m not near the machine?

    • Ashlee,
      I would follow the guidelines set forth by your employer and their regulations. There is generally a zone that is delineated that marks the area that has the magnetic field that would be strong enough to affect metal. Outside this range/zone, I would suspect that it is safe to have all types of metal objects, including VP shunt valves.
      I hope that that helps,

  2. I am a family doctor in Upstate South Carolina. I meet up with a lot of resistance when talking to the neurosurgeons about using an MRI for shunt evaluations. I worry about the radiation in my little patients. It is the same thing over and over… How do I handle this??

    • Dr. McGee,
      I would think that utilizing the literature may help you advocate for your patients. Our Neurosurgeons use the rapid MRI in the outpatient environment as well. It is not perfect, but it answers the question about ventricle size and shunt positioning… while eliminating the radiation and not costing any significant amount more of time.
      I hope you’re able to get the Rapid MRI protocol to be used more commonly for the VP shunt evaluations.

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