An externally validated deep learning model for the accurate segmentation of the lumbar paravertebral muscles

European Spine Journal (2022) 31:2156–2164

Imaging studies about the relevance of muscles in spinal disorders, and sarcopenia in general, require the segmentation of the muscles in the images which is very labour-intensive if performed manually and poses a practical limit to the number of investigated subjects. This study aimed at developing a deep learning-based tool able to fully automatically perform an accurate segmentation of the lumbar muscles in axial MRI scans, and at validating the new tool on an external dataset.

Methods A set of 60 axial MRI images of the lumbar spine was retrospectively collected from a clinical database. Psoas major, quadratus lumborum, erector spinae, and multifidus were manually segmented in all available slices. The dataset was used to train and validate a deep neural network able to segment muscles automatically. Subsequently, the network was externally validated on images purposely acquired from 22 healthy volunteers.

Results The median Jaccard index for the individual muscles calculated for the 22 subjects of the external validation set ranged between 0.862 and 0.935, demonstrating a generally excellent performance of the network, although occasional failures were noted. Cross-sectional area and fat fraction of the muscles were in agreement with published data.

Conclusions The externally validated deep neural network was able to perform the segmentation of the paravertebral muscles in an accurate and fully automated manner, although it is not without limitations. The model is therefore a suitable research tool to perform large-scale studies in the field of spinal disorders and sarcopenia, overcoming the limitations of non-automated methods.