The spinal cord white and gray matter can be affected by various pathologies such as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or trauma. Being able to precisely segment the white and gray matter could help with MR image analysis and hence be useful in further understanding these pathologies, and helping with diagnosis/prognosis and drug development. Up to date, white/gray matter segmentation has mostly been done manually, which is time consuming, induces a bias related to the rater and prevents large-scale multi-center studies. Recently, few methods have been proposed to automatically segment the spinal cord white and gray matter. However, no single method exists that combines the following criteria: (i) fully automatic, (ii) works on various MRI contrasts, (iii) robust towards pathology and (iv) freely available and open source. In this study we propose a multi-atlas based method for the segmentation of the spinal cord white and gray matter that addresses the previous limitations. Moreover, to study the spinal cord morphology, atlas-based approaches are increasingly used. These approaches rely on the registration of a spinal cord template to an MR image, however the registration usually doesn't take into account the spinal cord internal structure and thus lacks accuracy. In this study, we propose a new template registration framework that integrates the white and gray matter segmentation to account for the specific gray matter shape of each individual subject. Validation of segmentation was performed in 24 healthy subjects using T2*-weighted images, in 8 healthy subjects using diffusion weighted images (exhibiting inverted white-to-gray matter contrast compared to T2*-weighted), and in 5 patients with spinal cord injury. The template registration was validated in 24 subjects using T2*-weighted data. Results of automatic segmentation on T2*-weighted images was in close correspondence with the manual segmentation (Dice coefficient in the white/gray matter of 0.91/0.71 respectively). Similarly, good results were obtained in data with inverted contrast (diffusion-weighted image) and in patients. When compared to the classical template registration framework, the proposed framework that accounts for gray matter shape significantly improved the quality of the registration (comparing Dice coefficient in gray matter: p=9.5×10-6). While further validation is needed to show the benefits of the new registration framework in large cohorts and in a variety of patients, this study provides a fully-integrated tool for quantitative assessment of white/gray matter morphometry and template-based analysis. All the proposed methods are implemented in the Spinal Cord Toolbox (SCT), an open-source software for processing spinal cord multi-parametric MRI data.
Keywords: Atlas-based analysis; Gray matter; Multi-parametric MRI; Registration; Segmentation; Spinal cord.
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