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Impact of deep learning image reconstruction on volumetric accuracy and image quality of pulmonary nodules with different morphologies in low-dose CT.

BACKGROUND: This study systematically compares the impact of innovative deep learning image reconstruction (DLIR, TrueFidelity) to conventionally used iterative reconstruction (IR) on nodule volumetry and subjective image quality (IQ) at highly reduced radiation doses. This is essential in the context of low-dose CT lung cancer screening where accurate volumetry and characterization of pulmonary nodules in repeated CT scanning are indispensable.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: A standardized CT dataset was established using an anthropomorphic chest phantom (Lungman, Kyoto Kaguku Inc., Kyoto, Japan) containing a set of 3D-printed lung nodules including six diameters (4 to 9 mm) and three morphology classes (lobular, spiculated, smooth), with an established ground truth. Images were acquired at varying radiation doses (6.04, 3.03, 1.54, 0.77, 0.41 and 0.20 mGy) and reconstructed with combinations of reconstruction kernels (soft and hard kernel) and reconstruction algorithms (ASIR-V and DLIR at low, medium and high strength). Semi-automatic volumetry measurements and subjective image quality scores recorded by five radiologists were analyzed with multiple linear regression and mixed-effect ordinal logistic regression models.

RESULTS: Volumetric errors of nodules imaged with DLIR are up to 50% lower compared to ASIR-V, especially at radiation doses below 1 mGy and when reconstructed with a hard kernel. Also, across all nodule diameters and morphologies, volumetric errors are commonly lower with DLIR. Furthermore, DLIR renders higher subjective IQ, especially at the sub-mGy doses. Radiologists were up to nine times more likely to score the highest IQ-score to these images compared to those reconstructed with ASIR-V. Lung nodules with irregular margins and small diameters also had an increased likelihood (up to five times more likely) to be ascribed the best IQ scores when reconstructed with DLIR.

CONCLUSION: We observed that DLIR performs as good as or even outperforms conventionally used reconstruction algorithms in terms of volumetric accuracy and subjective IQ of nodules in an anthropomorphic chest phantom. As such, DLIR potentially allows to lower the radiation dose to participants of lung cancer screening without compromising accurate measurement and characterization of lung nodules.

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