Journal of Medical Internet Research (Feb 2021)

Hidden Variables in Deep Learning Digital Pathology and Their Potential to Cause Batch Effects: Prediction Model Study

  • Schmitt, Max,
  • Maron, Roman Christoph,
  • Hekler, Achim,
  • Stenzinger, Albrecht,
  • Hauschild, Axel,
  • Weichenthal, Michael,
  • Tiemann, Markus,
  • Krahl, Dieter,
  • Kutzner, Heinz,
  • Utikal, Jochen Sven,
  • Haferkamp, Sebastian,
  • Kather, Jakob Nikolas,
  • Klauschen, Frederick,
  • Krieghoff-Henning, Eva,
  • Fröhling, Stefan,
  • von Kalle, Christof,
  • Brinker, Titus Josef

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 23, no. 2
p. e23436


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BackgroundAn increasing number of studies within digital pathology show the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to diagnose cancer using histological whole slide images, which requires large and diverse data sets. While diversification may result in more generalizable AI-based systems, it can also introduce hidden variables. If neural networks are able to distinguish/learn hidden variables, these variables can introduce batch effects that compromise the accuracy of classification systems. ObjectiveThe objective of the study was to analyze the learnability of an exemplary selection of hidden variables (patient age, slide preparation date, slide origin, and scanner type) that are commonly found in whole slide image data sets in digital pathology and could create batch effects. MethodsWe trained four separate convolutional neural networks (CNNs) to learn four variables using a data set of digitized whole slide melanoma images from five different institutes. For robustness, each CNN training and evaluation run was repeated multiple times, and a variable was only considered learnable if the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval of its mean balanced accuracy was above 50.0%. ResultsA mean balanced accuracy above 50.0% was achieved for all four tasks, even when considering the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval. Performance between tasks showed wide variation, ranging from 56.1% (slide preparation date) to 100% (slide origin). ConclusionsBecause all of the analyzed hidden variables are learnable, they have the potential to create batch effects in dermatopathology data sets, which negatively affect AI-based classification systems. Practitioners should be aware of these and similar pitfalls when developing and evaluating such systems and address these and potentially other batch effect variables in their data sets through sufficient data set stratification.