Accurate quantification and characterization of atherosclerotic plaques with MRI requires high spatial resolution acquisitions with excellent image quality. The intrinsically better signal- to-noise ratio (SNR) at high-field clinical 7T compared to the widely employed lower field strengths of 1.5 and 3T may yield significant improvements to vascular MRI. However, 7T atherosclerosis imaging also presents specific challenges, related to local transmit coils and B1 field inhomogeneities, which may overshadow these theoretical gains. We present the development and evaluation of 3D, black-blood, ultra-high resolution vascular MRI on clinical high-field 7T in comparison lower-field 3T. These protocols were applied for in vivo imaging of atherosclerotic rabbits, which are often used for development, testing, and validation of translatable cardiovascular MR protocols. Eight atherosclerotic New Zealand White rabbits were imaged on clinical 7T and 3T MRI scanners using 3D, isotropic, high (0.63 mm3) and ultra-high (0.43 mm3) spatial resolution, black-blood MR sequences with extensive spatial coverage. Following imaging, rabbits were sacrificed for validation using fluorescence imaging and histology. Image quality parameters such as SNR and contrast-to-noise ratio (CNR), as well as morphological and functional plaque measurements (plaque area and permeability) were evaluated at both field strengths. Using the same or comparable imaging parameters, SNR and CNR were in general higher at 7T compared to 3T, with a median (interquartiles) SNR gain of +40.3 (35.3-80.1)%, and a median CNR gain of +68.1 (38.5- 95.2)%. Morphological and functional parameters, such as vessel wall area and permeability, were reliably acquired at 7T and correlated significantly with corresponding, widely validated 3T vessel wall MRI measurements. In conclusion, we successfully developed 3D, black-blood, ultra-high spatial resolution vessel wall MRI protocols on a 7T clinical scanner. 7T imaging was in general superior to 3T with respect to image quality, and comparable in terms of plaque area and permeability measurements.
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