Amplifying the Effects of Contrast Agents on Magnetic Resonance Images Using a Deep Learning Method Trained on Synthetic Data

Alberto Fringuello Mingo, Sonia Colombo Serra, Anna Macula, Davide Bella, Francesca La Cava, Marco Alì, Sergio Papa, Fabio Tedoldi, Marion Smits, Angelo Bifone, Giovanni Valbusa*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
18 Downloads (Pure)


OBJECTIVES: Artificial intelligence (AI) methods can be applied to enhance contrast in diagnostic images beyond that attainable with the standard doses of contrast agents (CAs) normally used in the clinic, thus potentially increasing diagnostic power and sensitivity. Deep learning-based AI relies on training data sets, which should be sufficiently large and diverse to effectively adjust network parameters, avoid biases, and enable generalization of the outcome. However, large sets of diagnostic images acquired at doses of CA outside the standard-of-care are not commonly available. Here, we propose a method to generate synthetic data sets to train an "AI agent" designed to amplify the effects of CAs in magnetic resonance (MR) images. The method was fine-tuned and validated in a preclinical study in a murine model of brain glioma, and extended to a large, retrospective clinical human data set. MATERIALS AND METHODS: A physical model was applied to simulate different levels of MR contrast from a gadolinium-based CA. The simulated data were used to train a neural network that predicts image contrast at higher doses. A preclinical MR study at multiple CA doses in a rat model of glioma was performed to tune model parameters and to assess fidelity of the virtual contrast images against ground-truth MR and histological data. Two different scanners (3 T and 7 T, respectively) were used to assess the effects of field strength. The approach was then applied to a retrospective clinical study comprising 1990 examinations in patients affected by a variety of brain diseases, including glioma, multiple sclerosis, and metastatic cancer. Images were evaluated in terms of contrast-to-noise ratio and lesion-to-brain ratio, and qualitative scores. RESULTS: In the preclinical study, virtual double-dose images showed high degrees of similarity to experimental double-dose images for both peak signal-to-noise ratio and structural similarity index (29.49 dB and 0.914 dB at 7 T, respectively, and 31.32 dB and 0.942 dB at 3 T) and significant improvement over standard contrast dose (ie, 0.1 mmol Gd/kg) images at both field strengths. In the clinical study, contrast-to-noise ratio and lesion-to-brain ratio increased by an average 155% and 34% in virtual contrast images compared with standard-dose images. Blind scoring of AI-enhanced images by 2 neuroradiologists showed significantly better sensitivity to small brain lesions compared with standard-dose images (4.46/5 vs 3.51/5). CONCLUSIONS: Synthetic data generated by a physical model of contrast enhancement provided effective training for a deep learning model for contrast amplification. Contrast above that attainable at standard doses of gadolinium-based CA can be generated through this approach, with significant advantages in the detection of small low-enhancing brain lesions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)853-864
Number of pages12
JournalInvestigative Radiology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023

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