Articular cartilage degeneration is the hallmark change of osteoarthritis, a severely disabling disease with high prevalence and considerable socioeconomic and individual burden. Early, potentially reversible cartilage degeneration is characterized by distinct changes in cartilage composition and ultrastructure, while the tissue’s morphology remains largely unaltered. Hence, early degenerative changes may not be diagnosed by clinical standard diagnostic tools.
Against this background, this study introduces a novel method to determine the tissue composition non-invasively. Our method involves quantitative MRI parameters (i.e., T1, T1ρ, T2 and
maps), compositional reference measurements (i.e., microspectroscopically determined local proteoglycan [PG] and collagen [CO] contents) and machine learning techniques (i.e., artificial neural networks [ANNs] and multivariate linear models [MLMs]) on 17 histologically grossly intact human cartilage samples.
Accuracy and precision were higher in ANN-based predictions than in MLM-based predictions and moderate-to-strong correlations were found between measured and predicted compositional parameters.
Once trained for the clinical setting, advanced machine learning techniques, in particular ANNs, may be used to non-invasively determine compositional features of cartilage based on quantitative MRI parameters with potential implications for the diagnosis of (early) degeneration and for the monitoring of therapeutic outcomes.