Breast cancer: Pigeons as good as humans at spotting signs in biopsy samples and mammogram scans, says new research

New research suggests the birds could be given a role in the development of new diagnostic procedures

John von Radowitz
Wednesday 18 November 2015 21:54
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A pigeon being trained to screen images of benign and malignant breast tissue
A pigeon being trained to screen images of benign and malignant breast tissue

Pigeons are as good as humans at spotting signs of breast cancer in biopsy samples and mammogram scans, according to remarkable new research.

Even doctors with years of education and training sometimes struggle to interpret microscopic slides and mammograms, experts said, seriously suggesting the birds could be given a role in the development of new diagnostic procedures.

In a new experiment, the birds – which can distinguish between human faces and expressions, letters of the alphabet, and even paintings by different artists – were taught how to recognise microscope slides and mammogram scan images showing evidence of benign or malignant tissue.

A total of eight pigeons took part in the experiment, with findings published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.

Using food rewards, birds were trained to peck a blue or yellow “report button” depending on whether they were being shown a benign or malignant image.

“Pigeons’ accuracy from day one of training at low magnification increased from 50 per cent correct to nearly 85 per cent correct at days 13 to 15,” said lead researcher Professor Richard Levenson, from the University of California

They were also as good as human radiologists at detecting microscopic calcification spots on mammograms that can be an early sign of cancer.

“This is a difficult, time-consuming, and expensive process that requires the recruitment of clinicians as subjects for these relatively mundane tasks,” said Professor Levenson. “Pigeons’ sensitivity to diagnostically salient features in medical images suggest that they can provide reliable feedback on many variables at play in the production, manipulation, and viewing of these diagnostically crucial tools.”

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