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The quantitative analysis of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data has become increasingly important in both research and clinical studies aiming at human brain development, function, and pathology. Inevitably, the role of quantitative image analysis in the evaluation of drug therapy will increase, driven in part by requirements imposed by regulatory agencies. However, the prohibitive length of time involved and the significant intra- and inter-rater variability of the measurements obtained from manual analysis of large MRI databases represent major obstacles to the wider application of quantitative MRI analysis. We have developed a fully automatic "pipeline" image analysis framework and have successfully applied it to a number of large-scale, multi-center studies (more than 1000 MRI scans). This pipeline system is based on robust image processing algorithms, executed in a parallel, distributed fashion. This paper describes the application of this system to the automatic quantification of multiple sclerosis lesion load in MRI, in the context of a phase III clinical trial. The pipeline results were evaluated through an extensive validation study, revealing that the obtained lesion measurements are statistically indistinguishable from those obtained by trained human observers. Given that intra- and inter-rater measurement variability is eliminated by automatic analysis, this system enhances the ability to detect small treatment effects not readily detectable through conventional analysis techniques. While useful for clinical trial analysis in multiple sclerosis, this system holds widespread potential for applications in other neurological disorders, as well as for the study of neurobiology in general.
Date of Publication: Oct. 2002