Specification and assessment of methods supporting the development of neural networks in medicine

by M. Egmont-Petersen

Front page book

Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Medicine, Maastricht University, Shaker Publishing B.V., Maastricht, 1996. (Purchase: http://www.amazon.co.uk or Shaker Publishing purchase)

1 Scope of the dissertation

This doctoral dissertation presents methods and techniques that may expedite application of neural networks in medicine. Research on neural networks started as a branch of neurology. A neural network consists of a set of interconnected nodes (neurons). Each node works like a junction between "nerve" paths. The neuron receives a number of inputs and produces an activation. The activation of a neuron is functionally dependent on the input signals the neuron receives. Each input signal is modified by a weight. Since their introduction by McCulloch and Pitts in 1943, neural networks migrated to cognitive science, artificial intelligence, statistical regression and decision theory, signal processing and other engineering disciplines. Neural networks have been developed for a large number of applications in economy, computer science, telecommunication and medicine. Chapter 1 contains a brief overview of neural networks that have been developed for clinical decision support.

Clinical application of neural networks is problematic because of their black-box nature. It is very difficult to assess the knowledge encoded in the weights of a trained neural network as it constitutes a nonlinear mapping between the feature (input) space and the class (output) space. In the dissertation, different techniques that characterize the properties of a trained neural network are suggested. Thereby, development and verification/validation of neural networks is expedited. To enhance the application of neural networks, the topic of missing data is also addressed.

2 A neural network performs a mapping

The most general notion of a classifier is a mathematical mapping from an n-dimensional input space to a c-dimensional output space, N: Rn x  Rc, where n is the number of features or attributes and c the number of classes to be discriminated. Neural networks can process combinations of qualitative and quantitative data. The c classes can be decisions such as diagnoses or therapies. The mapping is performed by a neural network, more specifically by the weighted connections between the input, hidden and output layers. During training of a neural network, the weights are adapted to minimize a function that measures the difference between the correct output of the learning cases and the output from the neural network.

3 Assessing the output of a classifier

In chapter 2, metrics are defined that characterize the performance of a trained neural network. The performance is measured by letting the neural network classify a set of test cases of which the true class label is known. A contingency table (confusion matrix) is used to characterize the performance of a neural-net classifier. Existing metrics that characterize different properties of the neural-net classifier are discussed. Also some new metrics are introduced. Although these metrics are defined for a neural-net classifier, they can be applied to other classifiers of which the results can be characterized by a contingency table. The metrics include correctness - the fraction of correctly classified cases - and coverage - the fraction of cases to which the neural network can assign a class label. The misclassified cases are characterized by the metrics for bias and dispersion. Standard errors and confidence intervals for some of the metrics are specified. The usefulness of the metrics is explored in a set of experiments in which neural networks are trained for classification of thyroid disorders.

4 Assessing the importance of attributes for a classifier

The chapters 3 and 4 address how to assess the contribution of individual attributes to the performance of a neural-net classifier. The motivation for performing attribute assessment is twofold. First, one wants to obtain insight into which attributes are important for assigning a correct class label to one or more cases. Secondly, one needs a criterion to rank the attributes according to their contribution to the performance of the neural-net classifier, before unimportant attributes can be pruned.

In chapter 3, different approaches to attribute selection such as forward, backward and Branch-and-Bound search are discussed. It is argued that backward search is a suitable selection strategy. Based on a mathematical analysis of a minimal error-rate classifier, a metric for the discriminative power of an attribute is introduced. This metric is used as a criterion to rank the attributes for each case in the test set. The ranks for each attribute are summed over all cases. The summed ranks are compared using Friedman's two-way analysis of variance. Attributes with a high average rank are unimportant for the neural network whereas attributes with a low average rank have the most influence on the classification performance. The usefulness of this approach is assessed in a number of experiments with artificial classification problems. The experiments indicated that the approach ranks the attributes correctly, when applied on classifiers trained with independent attributes as well as on classifiers trained with dependent attributes. The approach is also used in an application to identify attributes that are important for discriminating four different types of texture in radiographs of focal bone lesions.

In chapter 4, a mathematical framework is developed in which four different feature measures are derived from a minimal error-rate classifier. Each measure allows one to compute a lower bound for the marginal contribution of a feature to the performance of a statistical classifier. These measures characterize the influence and replaceability of a feature. Influence is the probability that a feature can possibly change the class label of a case while the other feature values are kept fixed. Replaceability is the expected decrease in performance when a feature value is substituted by the conditional mean of the feature.

Each feature measure is made operational by a feature metric. Computation of three of the four metrics requires the identification of the attribute-conditional decision boundaries. The decision boundaries for a given feature depend on the values of the other n-1 features and have to be identified in each case. The boundaries are identified with a piecewise polynomial approximation which is based on a Taylor expansion of the output of a neural-net classifier as a function of the given feature.

A pruning method called LMS-pruning is introduced. A feature is LMS-pruned by removing the links that connect the input node of the feature with the hidden nodes and changing the weights that connect the remaining features with the hidden nodes. The weights are modified such that the pruned neural network classifies the training cases identically to a network based on n feature values with the value of the pruned feature replaced by its expected value.

In experiments with artificial classification tasks, the four metrics are compared with respect to their ability to rank the features. These experiments indicate that replaceability is the best ranking criterion. The experiments showed that for neural-net classifiers with a performance close to the minimal error rate, LMS-pruning a feature resulted in a pruned network with a performance that remains close to the maximal (Bayesian) correctness.

5 Estimation of missing data

In chapter 5, a method for iterative estimation of missing data is suggested. Statistical classifiers such as neural networks require all inputs to be able to assign a class label to a case. This impedes application of such classifiers in environments where incomplete data frequently occur. Different approaches to estimate missing data such as the EM-algorithm and Multiple Imputation are discussed. To cope with some drawbacks of these two methods, it is suggested to use an auto associator neural network in recurrent mode to estimate missing values. The properties of an auto associator that is trained with complete cases is analyzed. Subsequently, it is suggested to use the auto associator in recurrent mode to estimate missing values. The conditions that ensure convergence of the recurrent auto associator are derived. It is proven that convergence is only possible when the number of hidden nodes of the auto associator is smaller than or equal to the number of observed values in an incomplete case.

The recurrent auto associator is embedded in the Recurrent Expectation Maximization (REM) algorithm, an iterative approach for estimating missing values in a set of cases. In a set of experiments, the residual variance of predictions made by the recurrent auto associator is compared with the residual variance obtained using multivariate linear regression. Also the REM and EM-algorithms are compared with respect to their ability to estimate missing values (residual variance) and to estimate the covariance matrix from the incomplete sample. The experiments indicate that the recurrent auto associator results in poorer estimates of the missing values than multivariate regression. The REM-algorithm estimates the covariance matrix slightly worse than the EM-algorithm when the data are fairly correlated and all variables have identical variances. However, the REM-algorithm gives an indication of those combinations of variables with missing and observed values in which the missing data will be predicted poorly. Leaving out such cases leads to an improvement in the estimation of the covariance matrices by the REM-algorithm.

6 Classification from noisy attributes

In chapter 6, the influence of measurement noise on the classification of a case is analyzed. Based on ideas of Brender et al., a quality measure called robustness is specified. The robustness of a classification is the probability that the class label assigned to the case would not be different from the classification based on the (unknown) true attribute values. It is assumed that the measurement noise is Gaussian with a zero mean and uncorrelated with the attributes. A formula for the robustness of a classification is specified.

In practice, it is difficult to estimate the robustness of a classification when the probability density function of the uncontaminated attributes is unknown. Therefore, two approximations are suggested. The bias introduced by these two approximations is analyzed for the special situations where an attribute comes either from a unimodal or a bimodal distribution and is to be classified into one of two classes.

A simulation experiment illustrates how often an attribute has to be remeasured to achieve a robust classification (the measurements are averaged, which reduces the influence of the measurement noise on the attribute value). It is clear that remeasuring a (noisy) attribute makes sense when only a few remeasurements are required to ensure a classification with a sufficiently high robustness. When, however, the robustness of a classification becomes too low, the number of measurements that are necessary to obtain a more accurate estimate of the attribute values becomes very high. The notion of remeasuring intervals is introduced. Such intervals indicate when remeasuring an attribute makes sense.

7 General conclusion

The methods and techniques developed in this dissertation are explored in a set of experiments. In chapter 7, it is discussed to which extent these methods and techniques may support development, verification and validation of neural networks. The possibility of applying knowledge-based systems in general and neural networks in particular in the clinic is discussed as well. It is argued that introduction of such systems in clinical practice interferes directly with the work processes of physicians. One can expect that such systems will have their largest potential in low-level information processing. It is an issue for further research to investigate the value of the presented methods and techniques in the development and evaluation of neural networks for clinical application.