Nipype is a python library for creating pipelines, able to combine multiple processing steps from different tools (SPM, FSL and others). In a way it is similar to SPM batch & script interface.

Nipype can be useful not only as a tool for building elaborate pipelines, but also as a simple wrapper for executing single steps. For example, in the walkthrough below, we use it to run spm smoothing for a group of subjects, with all scripting done in python instead of matlab.

An excellent tutorial has been created for Nipype by Michael Notter. There, the first steps chapter is especially valuable. In this page, we provide a description of one practical use case to demonstrate the utility of nipype. We are focusing on certain elements, without giving a methodic introduction to nodes and workflows.

Installation and configuration

Given that FSL, matlab and python are installed on calcus, nipype requires little preparation.

Since we decided not to install any python packages system-wide, you have to install nipype for yourself (pip install --user nipype). You should probably consider using a virtualenv (see our docs on Python for details).

You should obtain SPM yourself and place it in a location of your choice, for example in ~/spm12. Then you should add it to matlab path. Best way to do it is through a startup file 1. If you don’t have it yet, create a file ~/matlab/startup.m and add the following:

addpath /home/username/spm12

The fsl interface should work out of the box.

Use case: smoothing fmriprep derivatives with spm


Fmriprep 2 (which, by the way, is based on nipype) is an automatic preprocessing pipeline. Given that smoothing the data is straightforward and, depending on planned analyses, different levels of smoothing may be required, this step has been left out of fmriprep. Furthermore, fmriprep produces compressed (.nii.gz) files, which need to be unpacked before putting them into spm.

So in this case, I want to take non-smoothed, preprocessed .nii.gz files and smooth them using spm.

My data structure

The fmriprep output directory is in:


and inside, a path to a file looks like this:


in the end, I want to put smoothed files in:


The walkthrough

Prepare the basics

First, required imports (their roles will become clear later):

import nipype.interfaces.spm as spm
import os

from nipype.interfaces.utility import IdentityInterface
from import SelectFiles, DataSink
from nipype.algorithms.misc import Gunzip
from nipype.pipeline.engine import Workflow, Node

Then, I should define the paths to my data:

DERIV_DIR = '/opt/ssd/mszczepanik/emocon/derived'
WORK_DIR = '/opt/ssd/mszczepanik/emocon/work'

func_template = os.path.join(

codes = ['Azcnxv', 'Bqhldk']
task_names = ['ofl', 'de']

The func_template is a string containing the path to a file, relative to DERIV_DIR with subject ID and task label replaced by expressions in curly braces: {subject_id} and {task_label}. These will be useful later, because we will have Nipype fill them in for us. I also prepared lists of subject codes and task names to be used (for this example, I am processing only two subjects).

Create the nodes

Now it’s time to create pipeline nodes. A node executes a single processing step. We will create them first, and connect them later.

In this example, the plan is to create a total of five nodes: two will perform actual processing (gunzip and smooth), and additional three will be needed to handle input and output (one to accept lists of subjects and sessions and pass them further, one to select files, one to manage file output).

Let’s start with gunzip to decompress files. This one is simple:

gunzip = Node(Gunzip(), name='gunzip')

What’s intresting, it will not unzip the files in place, but rather put unzipped copies of the files in a working directory, so the source files will remain untouched.

Next in line is the smoothing node. Full documentation, with a list of inputs and outputs, can be found here. Note that we do not define the mandatory in_files input at this stage, because we are planning to feed multiple values into the pipeline later:

smooth = Node(spm.Smooth(), name='smooth')
smooth.inputs.fwhm = [8, 8, 8]
smooth.inputs.out_prefix = 'sm8_'

With the two nodes in place, we should start worrying about input and output. First, let’s create an IdentityNode. Its job is to pass values to other nodes. Let’s name it infosource and give it two fields, through which we will be specifying subjects and tasks. At this stage, we enter the lists of subject codes and tasks which we prepared earlier. What’s important is that we change both fields into iterables, meaning that they will accept lists of inputs and split the workflow into multiple copies (we do this because we want to process multiple subjects and multiple tasks):

infosource = Node(
    IdentityInterface(fields=['subject_id', 'task_label']),
infosource.iterables = [('subject_id', codes),
                        ('task_label', task_names)]

For selecting files, Nipype has SelectFiles node. Remember the func_template string above? We will use it now:

templates = {'func': func_template}
selectfiles = Node(
    SelectFiles(templates, base_directory=DERIV_DIR),

SelectFiles can take more than one template, thus splitting the data into several logical categories (e.g. anatomical and functional), but here we need just one. Keys of the templates dictionary are used to define output names. The template defines path relative to base_directory.

With input blocks ready, it’s time for DataSink, which is a node for writing output files:

datasink = Node(DataSink(base_directory=DERIV_DIR, container='spm'),

# nodes add pre-/postfix to file or folder, change it
datasink.inputs.substitutions  = [('_subject_id_', 'sub-')]
datasink.inputs.regexp_substitutions = [('_task_label_[a-z]+', '')]

The container parameter specifies name of the folder to be placed in base_directory. All outputs of the data sink will be collected there. However, nodes create their own folder names, so we should some substitutions to simplify output paths. Here, I used both substitutions (simple replacement) and regexp_substitutions (regular expression replacement); if both are present, the simple ones are performed first. Best way to figure out what substitutions will be required is to run the pipeline on a single subject.

Join nodes into a workflow

With all nodes ready and waiting, it’s time to create a workflow:

wf = Workflow(name='smooth_wf')
wf.base_dir = WORK_DIR

Workflow’s base_dir is where all intermediate files will be stored. It can (and should) be deleted after workflow completes successfully.

Finally, it’s time to connect all nodes together. Let’s do it in one sweep:

    (infosource, selectfiles, [('subject_id', 'subject_id'),
                               ('task_label', 'task_label')]),
    (selectfiles, gunzip, [('func', 'in_file')]),
    (gunzip, smooth, [('out_file', 'in_files')]),
    (smooth, datasink, [('smoothed_files', 'smooth')])

Which means that we want to connect:


Most of these connection points are defined by the nodes (e.g. spm.Smooth has one output, called smoothed_files). You can find them in Nipype’s API. For some nodes we defined the names ourselves upon creation: in infosource by specifying fields attribute, and in selectfiles by specifying templates (dictionary keys define outputs, expressions in curly braces define inputs).

The datasink is unique in that it does not need any inputs defined in advance. Instead, the names we give when connecting will be translated to output folder names. We don’t do this in current example, but you can use to create subdirectories (foo/bar) or foo.@bar to place an additional thing in foo without creating subdirectories (@bar is used because the foo input can accept only one connection).

Run the workflow

Finally, it’s time to run the workflow. We can use parallelisation. Here, I’m using 4 processor cores:'MultiProc', plugin_args={'n_procs': 4})

Nipype runs matlab processes with -singleCompThread option. The example above will be spawning up to 4 such processes, so that 4 files will be smoothed in parallel.

Output files are structured as follows:

└── smooth
    ├── sub-Azcnxv
    │   ├── sm8_sub-Azcnxv_task-de_space-MNI152NLin2009cAsym_desc-preproc_bold.nii
    │   └── sm8_sub-Azcnxv_task-ofl_space-MNI152NLin2009cAsym_desc-preproc_bold.nii
    └── sub-Bqhldk
        └── sm8_sub-Bqhldk_task-de_space-MNI152NLin2009cAsym_desc-preproc_bold.nii
        └── sm8_sub-Bqhldk_task-ofl_space-MNI152NLin2009cAsym_desc-preproc_bold.nii



Matlab docs,


fmriprep documentation,