In this work, we develop a robust, extensible tool to automatically and accurately count retinal ganglion cell axons in optic nerve (ON) tissue images from various animal models of glaucoma. We adapted deep learning to regress pixelwise axon count density estimates, which were then integrated over the image area to determine axon counts. The tool, termed AxoNet, was trained and evaluated using a dataset containing images of ON regions randomly selected from whole cross sections of both control and damaged rat ONs and manually annotated for axon count and location. This rat-trained network was then applied to a separate dataset of non-human primate (NHP) ON images. AxoNet was compared to two existing automated axon counting tools, AxonMaster and AxonJ, using both datasets. AxoNet outperformed the existing tools on both the rat and NHP ON datasets as judged by mean absolute error, R2 values when regressing automated vs. manual counts, and Bland-Altman analysis. AxoNet does not rely on hand-crafted image features for axon recognition and is robust to variations in the extent of ON tissue damage, image quality, and species of mammal. Therefore, AxoNet is not species-specific and can be extended to quantify additional ON characteristics in glaucoma and potentially other neurodegenerative diseases.
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