Classifying the images that portray the Human Epithelial cells of type 2 (HEp-2) represents one of the most important steps in the diagnosis procedure of autoimmune diseases. Performing this classification manually represents an extremely complicated task due to the heterogeneity of these cellular images. Hence, an automated classification scheme appears to be necessary. However, the majority of the available methods prefer to utilize the supervised learning approach for this problem. The need for thousands of images labelled manually can represent a difficulty with this approach. The first contribution of this work is to demonstrate that classifying HEp-2 cell images can also be done using the unsupervised learning paradigm. Unlike the majority of the existing methods, we propose here a deep learning scheme that performs both the feature extraction and the cells’ discrimination through an end-to-end unsupervised paradigm. We propose the use of a deep convolutional autoencoder (DCAE) that performs feature extraction via an encoding–decoding scheme. At the same time, we embed in the network a clustering layer whose purpose is to automatically discriminate, during the feature learning process, the latent representations produced by the DCAE. Furthermore, we investigate how the quality of the network’s reconstruction can affect the quality of the produced representations. We have investigated the effectiveness of our method on some benchmark datasets and we demonstrate here that the unsupervised learning, when done properly, performs at the same level as the actual supervised learning-based state-of-the-art methods in terms of accuracy.
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