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To develop and evaluate an image-domain noise reduction method based on a modified nonlocal means (NLM) algorithm that is adaptive to local noise level of CT images and to implement this method in a time frame consistent with clinical workflow.

A computationally efficient technique for local noise estimation directly from CT images was developed. A forward projection, based on a 2D fan-beam approximation, was used to generate the projection data, with a noise model incorporating the effects of the bowtie filter and automatic exposure control. The noise propagation from projection data to images was analytically derived. The analytical noise map was validated using repeated scans of a phantom. A 3D NLM denoising algorithm was modified to adapt its denoising strength locally based on this noise map. The performance of this adaptive NLM filter was evaluated in phantom studies in terms of in-plane and cross-plane high-contrast spatial resolution, noise power spectrum (NPS), subjective low-contrast spatial resolution using the American College of Radiology (ACR) accreditation phantom, and objective low-contrast spatial resolution using a channelized Hotelling model observer (CHO). Graphical processing units (GPU) implementation of this noise map calculation and the adaptive NLM filtering were developed to meet demands of clinical workflow. Adaptive NLM was piloted on lower dose scans in clinical practice.

The local noise level estimation matches the noise distribution determined from multiple repetitive scans of a phantom, demonstrated by small variations in the ratio map between the analytical noise map and the one calculated from repeated scans. The phantom studies demonstrated that the adaptive NLM filter can reduce noise substantially without degrading the high-contrast spatial resolution, as illustrated by modulation transfer function and slice sensitivity profile results. The NPS results show that adaptive NLM denoising preserves the shape and peak frequency of the noise power spectrum better than commercial smoothing kernels, and indicate that the spatial resolution at low contrast levels is not significantly degraded. Both the subjective evaluation using the ACR phantom and the objective evaluation on a low-contrast detection task using a CHO model observer demonstrate an improvement on low-contrast performance. The GPU implementation can process and transfer 300 slice images within 5 min. On patient data, the adaptive NLM algorithm provides more effective denoising of CT data throughout a volume than standard NLM, and may allow significant lowering of radiation dose. After a two week pilot study of lower dose CT urography and CT enterography exams, both GI and GU radiology groups elected to proceed with permanent implementation of adaptive NLM in their GI and GU CT practices.

This work describes and validates a computationally efficient technique for noise map estimation directly from CT images, and an adaptive NLM filtering based on this noise map, on phantom and patient data. Both the noise map calculation and the adaptive NLM filtering can be performed in times that allow integration with clinical workflow. The adaptive NLM algorithm provides effective denoising of CT data throughout a volume, and may allow significant lowering of radiation dose.


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