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Schmitz, Christoph; Eastwood, Brian S.; Tappan, Susan J.; Glaser, Jack R.; Peterson, Daniel A. and Hof, Patrick R. (2014): Current automated 3D cell detection methods are not a suitable replacement for manual stereologic cell counting. In: Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, Vol. 8, 27 [PDF, 985kB]


Stereologic cell counting has had a major impact on the field of neuroscience. A major bottleneck in stereologic cell counting is that the user must manually decide whether or not each cell is counted according to three-dimensional (3D) stereologic counting rules by visual inspection within hundreds of microscopic fields-of-view per investigated brain or brain region. Reliance on visual inspection forces stereologic cell counting to be very labor-intensive and time-consuming, and is the main reason why biased, non-stereologic two-dimensional (2D) "cell counting" approaches have remained in widespread use. We present an evaluation of the performance of modern automated cell detection and segmentation algorithms as a potential alternative to the manual approach in stereologic cell counting. The image data used in this study were 3D microscopic images of thick brain tissue sections prepared with a variety of commonly used nuclear and cytoplasmic stains. The evaluation compared the numbers and locations of cells identified unambiguously and counted exhaustively by an expert observer with those found by three automated 3D cell detection algorithms: nuclei segmentation from the FARSIGHT toolkit, nuclei segmentation by 3D multiple level set methods, and the 3D object counter plug-in for ImageJ. Of these methods, FARSIGHT performed best, with true-positive detection rates between 38 and 99% and false-positive rates from 3.6 to 82%. The results demonstrate that the current automated methods suffer from lower detection rates and higher false-positive rates than are acceptable for obtaining valid estimates of cell numbers. Thus, at present, stereologic cell counting with manual decision for object inclusion according to unbiased stereologic counting rules remains the only adequate method for unbiased cell quantification in histologic tissue sections.

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