The occurrence and extent of cerebral infarction is determined by three basic factors: i) site of arterial occlusion, ii) the rapidity of arterial occlusion, and iii) the presence or absence of collateral circulation.
Grossly, infarcts are usually divided into pale (non-hemorrhagic) and hemorrhagic types. Infarcts evolve over time, thus their gross appearance gives a clue to when they occurred. The temporal evolution of an infarct occurs in three stages: i) acute (1 day – 1 week) – the involved area is soft and edematous and there is a blurring of anatomic detail; ii) subacute (1 week – 1 month) – there is obvious tissue destruction and liquefactive necrosis of the involved brain; iii) chronic (>1 month) – the damaged tissue has been phagocytized and there is cavition with surrounding gliosis.
Microscopically there is also a temporal evolution of cerebral infarcts. During the earliest phase of infarction (0-48 hours) chromatolysis and swollen eosinophilic neurons are seen. Neuronal cell necrosis and an acute inflammatory response are usually seen from 24-72 hours. This response is typically followed by an influx of mononuclear cells which begin to phagocytize necrotic debris (3-5 days). From 1-2 weeks after the infarct there is vascular proliferation and reactive astrocytosis. Over time (>1 month) the necrotic tissue will be completely removed and a cystic cavity surrounded by a glial scar will be formed.
A separate class of infarcts related to hypertension are found in the basal ganglia and pons. These infarcts are termed “lacunar infarcts” and by definition are less than 1.5 cm in diameter. These infarcts are typically multiple and represent small areas of infarction. Lacunar infarcts are frequently hemorrhagic.
Although much less common than arterial infarction, venous cerebral infarction can occur.