Pigeons can tell the difference between healthy tissue and a tumor, and they might be able to sit in for humans doing some of the more boring chores in a pathology lab, researchers said Wednesday.
They’re especially eagle-eyed when it comes to diagnosing breast cancer, it seems, the researchers report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.
They flunk out on reading mammograms, however, so don’t look for the birds to be replacing human specialists any time soon, the teams at the University of Iowa and the University of California Davis said.
“The birds were remarkably adept at discriminating between benign and malignant breast cancer slides at all magnifications, a task that can perplex inexperienced human observers, who typically require considerable training to attain mastery,” said Richard Levenson, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UC Davis Health System who worked on the study.
“Pigeons’ accuracy from day one of training at low magnification increased from 50 percent correct to nearly 85 percent correct at days 13 to 15.”
Levenson and colleagues decided to train pigeons after they saw a long history of studies showing they can detect patterns pretty well.
“Research over the past 50 years has shown that pigeons can distinguish identities and emotional expressions on human faces, letters of the alphabet, misshapen pharmaceutical capsules, and even paintings by Monet vs. Picasso,” said Edward Wasserman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa who worked on the study.
“Their visual memory is equally impressive, with a proven recall of more than 1,800 images.”
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