Computer-aided B-mode ultrasound diagnosis of hepatic steatosis: a feasibility study

J.M. Thijssen, A. Starke, G. Weijers, A. Haudum, K. Herzog, P. Wohlsein, J. Rehage and C.L. De Korte

IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control 2008;55:1343-1354



Fatty liver (steatosis) occurs in obese patients, among others, and is related to the development of diabetes type-2. Timely diagnosis of steatosis is therefore of great importance. Steatosis is also the most common liver disease of high-yielding dairy cattle during early lactation. This makes it a suitable animal model for studying liver steatosis. Furthermore, reference of derived ultrasound parameters against a "gold standard" is possible in cattle by taking a liver biopsy for the assessment of fat concentration. The authors undertook this pilot study to investigate the hypothesis that quantitative, computer-aided B-mode ultrasound enables the noninvasive detection of hepatic steatosis. Echographic images were obtained postpartum from dairy cows (n = 12) in transcutaneous and direct (intraoperative) applications using a convex array transducer at 4.2 MHz. During surgery, a biopsy was taken from the caudate lobe to assess the liver fat content (fat score). A custom-designed software package for computer-aided ultrasound diagnosis (CAUS) was developed. After linearizing the post-processing look-up-table (LUT), the image gray levels were transferred into echo levels in decibels relative to the mean echo level in a tissue-mimicking phantom. The quantitative comparison of transcutaneous and intraoperative images enabled the correction for the attenuation effect of skin and subcutaneous fat layer on the mean echo level in the liver, as well as for the effects of the beam formation and attenuation of liver tissue on the echo level vs. depth. The residual attenuation coefficient (dB/cm) in fatty liver vs. normal liver was estimated and compensated for. Finally, echo level was estimated relative to the phantom used for calibration, and echo texture was characterized by the mean axial and lateral speckle size within the regions of interest. In the no fat/low fat group (n = 5) skin plus fat layer attenuation was 3.4 dB/cm. A correlation of skin layer thickness vs. fat score of r = 0.48 was found. The mean transcutaneous liver tissue echo level correlated well with fat score: r = 0.80. A residual liver attenuation coefficient of 0.76 dB/cm and 1.19 dB/cm was found in medium and high fat liver, respectively. In transcutaneous images, correlation of residual attenuation coefficient with fat score was r = 0.69. Axial and lateral speckle sizes were on the order of 0.2 and 1.0 cm, respectively, and no correlation was found with liver fat content. Results for transcutaneous and intraoperative images were similar. The authors conclude that this pilot study shows the feasibility of calibrated, computer-aided ultrasound for noninvasively diagnosing, possibly even screening, steatosis of the liver.