Introduction/purpose: Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic auto-immune disease with a broad spectrum of clinical presentations, including heterogeneous neuropsychiatric (NP) syndromes. Structural brain abnormalities are commonly found in SLE and NPSLE, but their role in diagnosis is limited, and their usefulness in distinguishing between NPSLE patients and patients in which the NP symptoms are not primarily attributed to SLE (non-NPSLE) is non-existent. Self-supervised contrastive learning algorithms proved to be useful in classification tasks in rare diseases with limited number of datasets. Our aim was to apply self-supervised contrastive learning on T1-weighted images acquired from a well-defined cohort of SLE patients, aiming to distinguish between NPSLE and non-NPSLE patients.
Subjects and methods: We used 3T MRI T1-weighted images of 163 patients. The training set comprised 68 non-NPSLE and 34 NPSLE patients. We applied random geometric transformations between iterations to augment our data sets. The ML pipeline consisted of convolutional base encoder and linear projector. To test the classification task, the projector was removed and one linear layer was measured. Validation of the method consisted of 6 repeated random sub-samplings, each using a random selection of a small group of patients of both subtypes.
Results: In the 6 trials, between 79% and 83% of the patients were correctly classified as NPSLE or non-NPSLE. For a qualitative evaluation of spatial distribution of the common features found in both groups, Gradient-weighted Class Activation Maps (Grad-CAM) were examined. Thresholded Grad-CAM maps show areas of common features identified for the NPSLE cohort, while no such communality was found for the non-NPSLE group.
Discussion/conclusion: The self-supervised contrastive learning model was effective in capturing common brain MRI features from a limited but well-defined cohort of SLE patients with NP symptoms. The interpretation of the Grad-CAM results is not straightforward, but indicates involvement of the lateral and third ventricles, periventricular white matter and basal cisterns. We believe that the common features found in the NPSLE population in this study indicate a combination of tissue loss, local atrophy and to some extent that of periventricular white matter lesions, which are commonly found in NPSLE patients and appear hypointense on T1-weighted images.
Keywords: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus; cohort studies; magnetic resonance imaging; neuroimaging; unsupervised machine learning.