Publication Date



Scientific Reports


Biomedical ontologies are widely used to harmonize heterogeneous data and integrate large volumes of clinical data from multiple sources. This study analyzed the utility of ontologies beyond their traditional roles, that is, in addressing a challenging and currently underserved field of feature engineering in machine learning workflows. Machine learning workflows are being increasingly used to analyze medical records with heterogeneous phenotypic, genotypic, and related medical terms to improve patient care. We performed a retrospective study using neuropathology reports from the German Neuropathology Reference Center for Epilepsy Surgery at Erlangen, Germany. This cohort included 312 patients who underwent epilepsy surgery and were labeled with one or more diagnoses, including dual pathology, hippocampal sclerosis, malformation of cortical dysplasia, tumor, encephalitis, and gliosis. We modeled the diagnosis terms together with their microscopy, immunohistochemistry, anatomy, etiologies, and imaging findings using the description logic-based Web Ontology Language (OWL) in the Epilepsy and Seizure Ontology (EpSO). Three tree-based machine learning models were used to classify the neuropathology reports into one or more diagnosis classes with and without ontology-based feature engineering. We used five-fold cross validation to avoid overfitting with a fixed number of repetitions while leaving out one subset of data for testing, and we used recall, balanced accuracy, and hamming loss as performance metrics for the multi-label classification task. The epilepsy ontology-based feature engineering approach improved the performance of all the three learning models with an improvement of 35.7%, 54.5%, and 33.3% in logistics regression, random forest, and gradient tree boosting models respectively. The run time performance of all three models improved significantly with ontology-based feature engineering with gradient tree boosting model showing a 93.8% reduction in the time required for training and testing of the model. Although, all three models showed an overall improved performance across the three-performance metrics using ontology-based feature engineering, the rate of improvement was not consistent across all input features. To analyze this variation in performance, we computed feature importance scores and found that microscopy had the highest importance score across the three models, followed by imaging, immunohistochemistry, and anatomy in a decreasing order of importance scores. This study showed that ontologies have an important role in feature engineering to make heterogeneous clinical data accessible to machine learning models and also improve the performance of machine learning models in multilabel multiclass classification tasks.


Humans, Workflow, Retrospective Studies, Machine Learning, Epilepsy, Seizures, Medical Records

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