Automated detection and differentiation of drusen, exudates, and cotton-wool spots in digital color fundus photographs for diabetic retinopathy diagnosis

M. Niemeijer, B. van Ginneken, S. Russel, M. Suttorp-Schulten and M. Abràmoff

Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science 2007;48(5):2260-2267.

DOI PMID Cited by ~417

PURPOSE: To describe and evaluate a machine learning-based, automated system to detect exudates and cotton-wool spots in digital color fundus photographs and differentiate them from drusen, for early diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy. METHODS: Three hundred retinal images from one eye of 300 patients with diabetes were selected from a diabetic retinopathy telediagnosis database (nonmydriatic camera, two-field photography): 100 with previously diagnosed bright lesions and 200 without. A machine learning computer program was developed that can identify and differentiate among drusen, (hard) exudates, and cotton-wool spots. A human expert standard for the 300 images was obtained by consensus annotation by two retinal specialists. Sensitivities and specificities of the annotations on the 300 images by the automated system and a third retinal specialist were determined. RESULTS: The system achieved an area under the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve of 0.95 and sensitivity/specificity pairs of 0.95/0.88 for the detection of bright lesions of any type, and 0.95/0.86, 0.70/0.93, and 0.77/0.88 for the detection of exudates, cotton-wool spots, and drusen, respectively. The third retinal specialist achieved pairs of 0.95/0.74 for bright lesions and 0.90/0.98, 0.87/0.98, and 0.92/0.79 per lesion type. CONCLUSIONS: A machine learning-based, automated system capable of detecting exudates and cotton-wool spots and differentiating them from drusen in color images obtained in community based diabetic patients has been developed and approaches the performance level of retinal experts. If the machine learning can be improved with additional training data sets, it may be useful for detecting clinically important bright lesions, enhancing early diagnosis, and reducing visual loss in patients with diabetes.