Evaluation of the 3D fractal dimension as a marker of structural brain complexity in multiple-acquisition MRI

Krohn, Stephan, Froeling, Martijn, Leemans, Alexander, Ostwald, Dirk, Villoslada, Pablo, Finke, Carsten, Esteban, Francisco J.


Human Brain Mapping 40 (11), p. 3299-3320


Fractal analysis represents a promising new approach to structural neuroimaging data, yet systematic evaluation of the fractal dimension (FD) as a marker of structural brain complexity is scarce. Here we present in-depth methodological assessment of FD estimation in structural brain MRI. On the computational side, we show that spatial scale optimization can significantly improve FD estimation accuracy, as suggested by simulation studies with known FD values. For empirical evaluation, we analyzed two recent open-access neuroimaging data sets (MASSIVE and Midnight Scan Club), stratified by fundamental image characteristics including registration, sequence weighting, spatial resolution, segmentation procedures, tissue type, and image complexity. Deviation analyses showed high repeated-acquisition stability of the FD estimates across both data sets, with differential deviation susceptibility according to image characteristics. While less frequently studied in the literature, FD estimation in T2-weighted images yielded robust outcomes. Importantly, we observed a significant impact of image registration on absolute FD estimates. Applying different registration schemes, we found that unbalanced registration induced (a) repeated-measurement deviation clusters around the registration target, (b) strong bidirectional correlations among image analysis groups, and (c) spurious associations between the FD and an index of structural similarity, and these effects were strongly attenuated by reregistration in both data sets. Indeed, differences in FD between scans did not simply track differences in structure per se, suggesting that structural complexity and structural similarity represent distinct aspects of structural brain MRI. In conclusion, scale optimization can improve FD estimation accuracy, and empirical FD estimates are reliable yet sensitive to image characteristics.