The Image on the Right (B) Has More Noise Than the Image on the Left (A)

In common use, the word noise means any unwanted sound. In both analog and digital electronics, noise is an unwanted perturbation to a wanted signal; it is called noise as a generalization of the audible noise heard when listening to a weak radio transmission. Signal noise is heard as acoustic noise if played through a loudspeaker; it manifests as 'snow' on a television or video image. Noise can block, distort, change or interfere with the meaning of a message in both human and electronic communication.

In a broader sense, film grain or even advertisements encountered while looking for something else can be considered noise. In biology, noise can describe the variability of a measurement around the mean, for example transcriptional noise describes the variability in gene activity between cells in a population.

It is generally desirable for image brightness (or film density) to be uniform except where it changes to form an image. There are factors, however, that tend to produce variation in the brightness of a displayed image even when no image detail is present. This variation is usually random and has no particular pattern. In many cases, it reduces image quality and is especially significant when the objects being imaged are small and have relatively low contrast. This random variation in image brightness is designated noise.

All medical images contain some visual noise. The presence of noise gives an image a mottled, grainy, textured, or snowy appearance. The figure below compares two images with different levels of noise. Image noise comes from a variety of sources, as we will soon discover. No imaging method is free of noise, but noise is much more prevalent in certain types of imaging procedures than in others.