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Cancer. 2001 Apr 15;91(8 Suppl):1615-35.

Artificial neural networks: opening the black box.

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Complexity Research Solutions, Inc., Silver Spring, Maryland 20906, USA.


Artificial neural networks now are used in many fields. They have become well established as viable, multipurpose, robust computational methodologies with solid theoretic support and with strong potential to be effective in any discipline, especially medicine. For example, neural networks can extract new medical information from raw data, build computer models that are useful for medical decision-making, and aid in the distribution of medical expertise. Because many important neural network applications currently are emerging, the authors have prepared this article to bring a clearer understanding of these biologically inspired computing paradigms to anyone interested in exploring their use in medicine. They discuss the historical development of neural networks and provide the basic operational mathematics for the popular multilayered perceptron. The authors also describe good training, validation, and testing techniques, and discuss measurements of performance and reliability, including the use of bootstrap methods to obtain confidence intervals. Because it is possible to predict outcomes for individual patients with a neural network, the authors discuss the paradigm shift that is taking place from previous "bin-model" approaches, in which patient outcome and management is assumed from the statistical groups in which the patient fits. The authors explain that with neural networks it is possible to mediate predictions for individual patients with prevalence and misclassification cost considerations using receiver operating characteristic methodology. The authors illustrate their findings with examples that include prostate carcinoma detection, coronary heart disease risk prediction, and medication dosing. The authors identify and discuss obstacles to success, including the need for expanded databases and the need to establish multidisciplinary teams. The authors believe that these obstacles can be overcome and that neural networks have a very important role in future medical decision support and the patient management systems employed in routine medical practice.

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