Pigeons Can Diagnose Cancer

Although cancer research is spending billions to develop techniques to properly diagnose cancer, it came as a surprise that even pigeons can diagnose this deadly disease. When trained, these pigeons can easily differentiate healthy breast tissue from the one with cancer when displayed on biopsy slides. Although no hospital has yet announced to replace it’s qualified medical staff with pigeons, it’s an imminent replacement considering the salary some medical professionals are paid to do the same job.

pigeons trained to distinguish cancer

The experiment was conducted by Professor Richard Levenson at the University of California where he used 16 pigeons to test the results. Pigeons were placed in front of a touchscreen that showed microscope slides on the screen. The slides were either healthy or effected breast tissue. Professor Levenson first divided pigeons into different groups and tested their behavior by rewarding them with food. One groups was rewarded for picking healthy slides while the other group was rewarded for picking unhealthy cancerous slides. Pigeons were then divided into subgroups, each group receiving a different image resolution to find the resolution that gives most accurate results.

“The pigeons were able to generalize what they had learned, so that when we showed them a completely new set of normal and cancerous digitized slides, they correctly identified them,” Levenson said in a statement. “Their accuracy, like that of humans, was modestly affected by the presence or absence of color in the images, as well as by degrees of image compression.”

“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 said. The paper notes that this is “a task that can perplex inexperienced human observers who typically require considerable training to attain mastery.” Pigeons proved able to adapt their learning when confronted with images at unfamiliar magnifications.

Levenson then tested the pigeons’ radiology skills and reported, “The pigeons also learned to correctly identify cancer-relevant microcalcifications on mammograms.” No comparisons of humans have been conducted under similar conditions, but Levenson told IFLScience that, “I gave one of the problem sets to our administative assistants, with verbal instructions as well as visual training, and after one hour of exposure they were certainly not as good as the birds after several days.”

The pigeons were not perfect, though. Levenson admitted “they had a tougher time classifying suspicious masses on mammograms – a task that is extremely difficult, even for skilled human observers.” Nevertheless, radiologists scored 80 percent on the “relatively subtle” slides used for this test, while the pigeons couldn’t beat chance.

Professor Edward Wasserman, a co-author from the University of Iowa, added: “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.” Intriguingly, the paper notes, “The pigeons proved to have an affinity for histopathology, as they achieved stable high performance as fast as or faster than with other visual discrimination problems studied in our Iowa laboratory.”

Most remarkably, if the assessments of multiple pigeons on each slide were added together – in a sort of pigeon democracy the authors call “flock-sourcing” – accuracy reached 99 percent.

Read full article at http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/pigeons-trained-spot-cancer

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