Computed tomography (CT) is a medical imaging method employing tomography. Digital geometry processing is used to generate a three-dimensional image of the inside of an object from a large series of two-dimensional X-ray images taken around a single axis of rotation. The word "tomography" is derived from the Greek tomos (slice) and graphein (to write).
Computed tomography was originally known as the "EMI scan" as it was developed at a research branch of EMI, a company best known today for its music and recording business. It was later known as computed axial tomography (CAT or CT scan) and body section röntgenography.
CT produces a volume of data which can be manipulated, through a process known as windowing, in order to demonstrate various structures based on their ability to block the X-ray/Röntgen beam. Although historically (see below) the images generated were in the axial or transverse plane (orthogonal to the long axis of the body), modern scanners allow this volume of data to be reformatted in various planes or even as volumetric (3D) representations of structures.
Although most common in medicine, CT is also used in other fields, such as nondestructive materials testing. Another example is the DigiMorph project at the University of Texas at Austin which uses a CT scanner to study biological and paleontological specimens.
In the early 1900s, the Italian radiologist Alessandro Vallebona proposed a method to represent a single slice of the body on the radiographic film. This method was known as tomography. The idea is based on simple principles of projective geometry: moving synchronously and in opposite directions the X-ray tube and the film, which are connected together by a rod whose pivot point is the focus; the image created by the points on the focal plane appears sharper, while the images of the other points annihilate as noise. This is only marginally effective, as blurring occurs only in the "x" plane. There are also more complex devices which can move in more than one plane and perform more effective blurring.
Tomography had been one of the pillars of radiologic diagnostics until the late 1970s, when the availability of minicomputers and of the transverse axial scanning method, this last due to the work of Godfrey Hounsfield and South African born Allan McLeod Cormack, gradually supplanted it as the modality of CT.
The first commercially viable CT scanner was invented by Sir Godfrey Hounsfield in Hayes, United Kingdom at EMI Central Research Laboratories using X-rays. Hounsfield conceived his idea in 1967, and it was publicly announced in 1972. Allan McLeod Cormack of Tufts University in Massachusetts independently invented a similar process, and both Hounsfield and Cormack shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The prototype CT scanner
The original 1971 prototype took 160 parallel readings through 180 angles, each 1° apart, with each scan taking a little over five minutes. The images from these scans took 2.5 hours to be processed by algebraic reconstruction techniques on a large computer. The scanner had a single photomultiplier detector, and operated on the Translate/Rotate principle.
It has been claimed that thanks to the success of The Beatles, EMI could fund research and build early models for medical use. The first production X-ray CT machine (in fact called the "EMI-Scanner") was limited to making tomographic sections of the brain, but acquired the image data in about 4 minutes (scanning two adjacent slices), and the computation time (using a Data General Nova minicomputer) was about 7 minutes per picture. This scanner required the use of a water-filled Perspex tank with a pre-shaped rubber "head-cap" at the front, which enclosed the patient's head. The water-tank was used to reduce the dynamic range of the radiation reaching the detectors (between scanning outside the head compared with scanning through the bone of the skull). The images were relatively low resolution, being composed of a matrix of only 80 x 80 pixels. The first EMI-Scanner was installed in Atkinson Morley Hospital in Wimbledon,
A historic EMI-Scanner
A form of tomography can be performed by moving the X-ray source and detector during an exposure. Anatomy at the target level remains sharp, while structures at different levels are blurred. By varying the extent and path of motion, a variety of effects can be obtained, with variable depth of field and different degrees of blurring of 'out of plane' structures.
Digital tomosynthesis combines digital image capture and processing with simple tube/detector motion as used in conventional radiographic tomography - although there are some similarities to CT, it is a separate technique. In CT, the source/detector makes a complete 360 degree rotation about the subject obtaining a complete set of data from which images may be reconstructed. In digital tomosynthesis, only a small rotation angle (e.g. 40 degrees) with a small number of discrete exposures (e.g. 10) are used. This incomplete set of data can be digitally processed to yield images similar to conventional tomography with a limited depth of field. However, because the image processing is digital, a series of slices at different depths and with different thicknesses can be reconstructed from the same acquisition, saving both time and radiation exposure.
Because the data acquired is incomplete, tomosynthesis is unable to offer the extremely narrow slice widths that CT offers. However, higher resolution detectors can be used, allowing very-high in-plane resolution, even if the Z-axis resolution is poor. The primary interest in tomosynthesis is in breast imaging, as an extension to mammography, where it may offer better detection rates, with little extra increase in radiation exposure.
Reconstruction algorithms for tomosynthesis are significantly different from conventional CT, as the conventional filtered back projection algorithm requires a complete set of data. Iterative algorithms based upon expectation maximization are most commonly used, but are extremely computationally intensive. Some manufacturers have produced practical systems using commercial GPUs to perform the reconstruction.