Performance comparison of 10 different classification techniques in segmenting white matter hyperintensities in aging

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White matter hyperintensities (WMHs) are areas of abnormal signal on magnetic resonance images (MRIs) that characterize various types of histopathological lesions. The load and location of WMHs are important clinical measures that may indicate the presence of small vessel disease in aging and Alzheimer's disease (AD) patients. Manually segmenting WMHs is time consuming and prone to inter-rater and intra-rater variabilities. Automated tools that can accurately and robustly detect these lesions can be used to measure the vascular burden in individuals with AD or the elderly population in general. Many WMH segmentation techniques use a classifier in combination with a set of intensity and location features to segment WMHs, however, the optimal choice of classifier is unknown.


We compare 10 different linear and nonlinear classification techniques to identify WMHs from MRI data. Each classifier is trained and optimized based on a set of features obtained from co-registered MR images containing spatial location and intensity information. We further assess the performance of the classifiers using different combinations of MRI contrast information. The performances of the different classifiers were compared on three heterogeneous multi-site datasets, including images acquired with different scanners and different scan-parameters. These included data from the ADC study from University of California Davis, the NACC database and the ADNI study. The classifiers (naïve Bayes, logistic regression, decision trees, random forests, support vector machines, k-nearest neighbors, bagging, and boosting) were evaluated using a variety of voxel-wise and volumetric similarity measures such as Dice Kappa similarity index (SI), Intra-Class Correlation (ICC), and sensitivity as well as computational burden and processing times. These investigations enable meaningful comparisons between the performances of different classifiers to determine the most suitable classifiers for segmentation of WMHs. In the spirit of open-source science, we also make available a fully automated tool for segmentation of WMHs with pre-trained classifiers for all these techniques.


Random Forests yielded the best performance among all classifiers with mean Dice Kappa (SI) of 0.66±0.17 and ICC=0.99 for the ADC dataset (using T1w, T2w, PD, and FLAIR scans), SI=0.72±0.10, ICC=0.93 for the NACC dataset (using T1w and FLAIR scans), SI=0.66±0.23, ICC=0.94 for ADNI1 dataset (using T1w, T2w, and PD scans) and SI=0.72±0.19, ICC=0.96 for ADNI2/GO dataset (using T1w and FLAIR scans). Not using the T2w/PD information did not change the performance of the Random Forest classifier (SI=0.66±0.17, ICC=0.99). However, not using FLAIR information in the ADC dataset significantly decreased the Dice Kappa, but the volumetric correlation did not drastically change (SI=0.47±0.21, ICC=0.95).


Our investigations showed that with appropriate features, most off-the-shelf classifiers are able to accurately detect WMHs in presence of FLAIR scan information, while Random Forests had the best performance across all datasets. However, we observed that the performances of most linear classifiers and some nonlinear classifiers drastically decline in absence of FLAIR information, with Random Forest still retaining the best performance.

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