Beyond linearity in neuroimaging: Capturing nonlinear relationships with application to longitudinal studies

Neuroimage. 2021 Jun;233:117891. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.117891. Epub 2021 Mar 3.


The ubiquitous adoption of linearity for quantitative predictors in statistical modeling is likely attributable to its advantages of straightforward interpretation and computational feasibility. The linearity assumption may be a reasonable approximation especially when the variable is confined within a narrow range, but it can be problematic when the variable's effect is non-monotonic or complex. Furthermore, visualization and model assessment of a linear fit are usually omitted because of challenges at the whole brain level in neuroimaging. By adopting a principle of learning from the data in the presence of uncertainty to resolve the problematic aspects of conventional polynomial fitting, we introduce a flexible and adaptive approach of multilevel smoothing splines (MSS) to capture any nonlinearity of a quantitative predictor for population-level neuroimaging data analysis. With no prior knowledge regarding the underlying relationship other than a parsimonious assumption about the extent of smoothness (e.g., no sharp corners), we express the unknown relationship with a sufficient number of smoothing splines and use the data to adaptively determine the specifics of the nonlinearity. In addition to introducing the theoretical framework of MSS as an efficient approach with a counterbalance between flexibility and stability, we strive to (a) lay out the specific schemes for population-level nonlinear analyses that may involve task (e.g., contrasting conditions) and subject-grouping (e.g., patients vs controls) factors; (b) provide modeling accommodations to adaptively reveal, estimate and compare any nonlinear effects of a predictor across the brain, or to more accurately account for the effects (including nonlinear effects) of a quantitative confound; (c) offer the associated program 3dMSS to the neuroimaging community for whole-brain voxel-wise analysis as part of the AFNI suite; and (d) demonstrate the modeling approach and visualization processes with a longitudinal dataset of structural MRI scans.

Trial registration: NCT01132885 NCT01434368.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

Associated data