An unsupervised automatic segmentation algorithm for breast tissue classification of dedicated breast computed tomography images

Med Phys. 2018 Jun;45(6):2542-2559. doi: 10.1002/mp.12920. Epub 2018 May 9.


Purpose: To develop and evaluate a new automatic classification algorithm to identify voxels containing skin, vasculature, adipose, and fibroglandular tissue in dedicated breast CT images.

Methods: The proposed algorithm combines intensity- and region-based segmentation methods with energy minimizing splines and unsupervised data mining approaches for classifying and segmenting the different tissue types. Breast skin segmentation is achieved by a region-growing method which uses constraints from the previously extracted skin centerline to add robustness to the model and to reduce the false positive rate. An energy minimizing active contour model is then used to classify adipose tissue voxels by including gradient flow and region-based features. Finally, blood vessels are separated from fibroglandular tissue by a k-means clustering algorithm based on automatically extracted shape-based features. To evaluate the accuracy of the algorithm, two sets of 15 different patient breast CT scans, each acquired with different breast CT systems and acquisition settings were obtained. Three slices from each scan were manually segmented under the supervision of an experienced breast radiologist and considered the gold standard. Comparisons with manual segmentation were quantified using five similarity metrics: Dice similarity coefficient (DSC), sensitivity, conformity coefficient, and two Hausdorff distance measures. To evaluate the robustness to image noise, the segmentation was repeated after separately adding Gaussian noise with increasing standard deviation (in four steps, from 0.01 to 0.04) to an additional 15 slices from the first dataset. In addition, to evaluate vasculature classification, three different pre- and postcontrast injection patient breast CT images were classified and compared. Finally, DSC was also used for quantitative comparisons with previously proposed approaches for breast CT tissue classification using 10 images from the first dataset.

Results: The algorithm showed a high accuracy in classifying the different tissue types for both breast CT systems, with an average DSC of 95% and 90% for the first and second image dataset, respectively. Furthermore, it demonstrated to be robust to image noise with a robustness to image noise of 85%, 83%, 79%, and 71% for the images corrupted with the four increasing noise levels. Previous methods for breast tissues classification resulted, for the tested dataset, in an average global DSC of 87%, while our approach resulted in a global average DSC of 94.5%.

Conclusions: The proposed algorithm resulted in accurate and robust breast tissue classification, with no prior training or threshold setting. Potential applications include breast density quantification and tissue pattern characterization (both biomarkers of cancer development), simulation-based radiation dose analysis, and patient data-based phantom design, which could be used for further breast imaging research.

Keywords: CAD; breast cancer; dedicated breast CT; image classification; segmentation.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / blood supply
  • Adipose Tissue / diagnostic imaging
  • Breast / blood supply
  • Breast / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Humans
  • Mammography / methods*
  • Pattern Recognition, Automated / methods*
  • Skin / blood supply
  • Skin / diagnostic imaging
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods*
  • Unsupervised Machine Learning*