Background: Over the past 5 years, a steady stream of publications has discussed the use of artificial neural networks (ANNs) for urologic and other medical applications. The pace of this research has increased recently, and deployed products based on this technology are now appearing. Before these tools can be widely accepted by clinicians and researchers, a deeper level of understanding of ANNs is necessary. This article attempts to lay some of the groundwork needed to facilitate this familiarity.
Methods: A short discussion of neural network history is included for background. This is followed by an in-depth discussion of how and why ANNs work. This discussion includes the relationship between ANNs and statistical regression. An investigation of issues associated with neural networks follows, applicable to both general and urologic-specific applications.
Results: Neural networks are computer models that have been studied extensively for over 50 years, with prostate cancer applications since 1994. From a biological viewpoint, ANNs are artificial analogues of data structures that exist in nervous systems. From a numeric viewpoint, ANNs are matrices of numbers whose values comprise knowledge that is distilled from historic databases. Many types of neural networks are analogous to well-known statistical methods.
Conclusions: ANNs are complex numeric constructs, but no more complex than similar statistical methods. However, several issues associated with neural network derivation demand that developers apply rigorous engineering practices in their studies.
Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.