Instance-level quantitative saliency in multiple sclerosis lesion segmentation

In recent years, explainable methods for artificial intelligence (XAI) have tried to reveal and describe models' decision mechanisms in the case of classification tasks. However, XAI for semantic segmentation and in particular for single instances has been little studied to date. Understanding the process underlying automatic segmentation of single instances is crucial to reveal what information was used to detect and segment a given object of interest. In this study, we proposed two instance-level explanation maps for semantic segmentation based on SmoothGrad and Grad-CAM++ methods. Then, we investigated their relevance for the detection and segmentation of white matter lesions (WML), a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) biomarker in multiple sclerosis (MS). 687 patients diagnosed with MS for a total of 4043 FLAIR and MPRAGE MRI scans were collected at the University Hospital of Basel, Switzerland. Data were randomly split into training, validation and test sets to train a 3D U-Net for MS lesion segmentation. We observed 3050 true positive (TP), 1818 false positive (FP), and 789 false negative (FN) cases. We generated instance-level explanation maps for semantic segmentation, by developing two XAI methods based on SmoothGrad and Grad-CAM++. We investigated: 1) the distribution of gradients in saliency maps with respect to both input MRI sequences; 2) the model's response in the case of synthetic lesions; 3) the amount of perilesional tissue needed by the model to segment a lesion. Saliency maps (based on SmoothGrad) in FLAIR showed positive values inside a lesion and negative in its neighborhood. Peak values of saliency maps generated for these four groups of volumes presented distributions that differ significantly from one another, suggesting a quantitative nature of the proposed saliency. Contextual information of 7mm around the lesion border was required for their segmentation.

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