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'Google-like' digital library of brain scans to help inform doctors' diagnoses

Researchers in the US are in the process of building a "Google-like" system that will allow doctors to search through a database of brain scans to help identify abnormalities with child patients.13 Jan 2014

Thousands of images of both normal and abnormal child brains will be collected and archived in the "detailed digital library of MRI scans". Doctors will be able to search the database to reference scans they carry out with those carried out on other patients previously in a bid to better understand whether any diseases or other problems are present.

The cloud-based project is being undertaken by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US.

"We’re creating a pediatric brain data bank that will let doctors look at MRI brain scans of children who have already been diagnosed with illnesses like epilepsy or psychiatric disorders,” Michael Miller, one of the lead researchers working on the project and an expert on computational anatomy, said. "It will provide a way to share important new discoveries about how changes in brain structures are linked to brain disorders. For the medical imaging world, this system will do what a search engine like Google does when you ask it to look for specific information on the web."

"If doctors aren’t sure which disease is causing a child’s condition, they could search the data bank for images that closely match their patient’s most recent scan," Miller said. "If a diagnosis is already attached to an image from the data bank, that could steer the physician in the right direction. Also, the scans in our library may help a physician identify a change in the shape of a brain structure that occurs very early in the course of a disease, even before clinical symptoms appear. That could allow the physician to get an early start on the treatment."

More than 5,000 "whole-brain" scans have already been collected from child patients treated at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. To protect their privacy, their data has been pseudonymised, the institution said.

"The patients’ names and other identifying information were withheld, but details related to their medical conditions were included [in the database]," it said. "The computer software indexed anatomical information involving up to 1,000 structural measurements in 250 regions of the brain. These images were also sorted into 22 brain disease categories, including chromosomal abnormalities, congenital malformations, vascular diseases, infections, epilepsy and psychiatric disorders."

Johns Hopkins University said that a similar data bank is being built up of images from scans of elderly patients with particular brain disorders in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centre at the US' National Institute of Aging.

"This research is one of the first real applications of ‘Big Data’ analytics, taking medical information from large numbers of patients, removing anything that would identify specific individuals, and then bringing the data into the ‘cloud’ to allow very high-powered analysis,” Jonathan Lewin, chairman and radiologist-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins Department of Radiology and Radiological Science, said.

"This has been a goal of the medical community for almost a decade, and professors Miller and [his colleague Susumu Mori] have found a way to implement this technology in a manner that can bring its benefit to our patients, and can assist in the classification and identification of rare and subtle brain disorders as well as uncommon manifestations of more common diseases of the brain," he added.