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The automatic exposure control (AEC) modes of most full field digital mammography (FFDM) systems are set up to hold pixel value (PV) constant as breast thickness changes. This paper proposes an alternative AEC mode, set up to maintain some minimum detectability level, with the ultimate goal of improving object detectability at larger breast thicknesses.

The default “” AEC mode of a Siemens MAMMOMAT Inspiration FFDM system was assessed using poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) of thickness 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and 70 mm to find the tube voltage and anode/filter combination programmed for each thickness; these beam quality settings were used for the modified AEC mode. Detectability index (′), in terms of a non-prewhitened model observer with eye filter, was then calculated as a function of tube current-time product (mAs) for each thickness. A modified AEC could then be designed in which detectability never fell below some minimum setting for any thickness in the operating range. In this study, the value was chosen such that the system met the achievable threshold gold thickness () in the European guidelines for the 0.1 mm diameter disc (i.e., ≤ 1.10 m gold). The default and modified AEC modes were compared in terms of contrast-detail performance (), calculated detectability (′), signal-difference-to-noise ratio (SDNR), and mean glandular dose (MGD). The influence of a structured background on object detectability for both AEC modes was examined using a CIRS BR3D phantom. Computer-based CDMAM reading was used for the homogeneous case, while the images with the BR3D background were scored by human observers.

The default AEC mode maintained PV constant as PMMA thickness increased, leading to a reduction in SDNR for the homogeneous background 39% and ′ 37% in going from 20 to 70 mm; introduction of the structured BR3D plate changed these figures to 22% (SDNR) and 6% (′), respectively. Threshold gold thickness (0.1 mm diameter disc) for the default AEC mode in the homogeneous background increased by 62% in going from 20 to 70 mm PMMA thickness; in the structured background, the increase was 39%. Implementation of the modified mode entailed an increase in mAs at PMMA thicknesses >40 mm; the modified AEC held threshold gold thickness constant above 40 mm PMMA with a maximum deviation of 5% in the homogeneous background and 3% in structured background. SDNR was also held constant with a maximum deviation of 4% and 2% for the homogeneous and the structured background, respectively. These results were obtained with an increase of MGD between 15% and 73% going from 40 to 70 mm PMMA thickness.

This work has proposed and implemented a modified AEC mode, tailored toward constant detectability at larger breast thickness, i.e., above 40 mm PMMA equivalent. The desired improvement in object detectability could be obtained while maintaining MGD within the European guidelines achievable dose limit. (A study designed to verify the performance of the modified mode using more clinically realistic data is currently underway.)


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