One Very Brainy Bird

November 18, 2015 - 4:30pm
pigeon learns to discriminate cancerous from non-cancerous images

If pigeons went to medical school and specialized in pathology or radiology, they’d be pretty good at distinguishing between digitized microscope slides and mammograms of normal and cancerous breast tissue, according to a new study from the University of Iowa and the University of California, Davis.

With some training and selective food reinforcement, pigeons performed as well as humans in categorizing digitized slides and mammograms of benign and malignant human breast tissue, the researchers found. The pigeons were able to generalize what they had learned, so that when the researchers showed them a completely new set of normal and cancerous digitized slides, they correctly identified them. 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. The pigeons also learned to correctly identify cancer-relevant micro calcifications on mammograms, but they had a tougher time classifying suspicious masses on mammograms—a task considered difficult even for skilled human observers, the authors note in the paper, published online Nov. 18 in the journal PLOS One.

"These results go a long way toward establishing a profound link between humans and our animal kin," says Edward Wasserman, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the UI and study co-author. "Even distant relatives—like people and pigeons—are adept at perceiving and categorizing the complex visual patterns that are presented in pathology and radiology images, surely a task for which nature has not specifically prepared us."

Read the full article on IowaNow.

Find out more about Professor Wasserman's research:

The New York Times:  Paging Dr. Pigeon; You’re Needed in Radiology
Wall Street Journal:  The Pigeons That Can Spot Breast Cancer​
Washington PostCan mammogram-reading pigeons help train human radiologists? An animal behaviorist weighs in.
Vice: Pigeons Could Help Detect Breast Cancer
Discovery: Pigeons Good at Detecting Breast Cancer
New Scientist: Pigeons taught to diagnose breast cancer on X-rays
Smithsonian: Pigeons Can Spot Breast Cancer in Medical Images
Science Mag: Pigeons spot cancer as well as human experts 
EurekAlertCommon pigeon: Not just a bird brain, but a brainy bird
MirrorPigeons can spot breast cancer in women's scans 'as accurately as human experts'
CBC Radio: ​Radio Interview - Pigeons Pathologists Learn to Detect Cancer

Spotlight Type: 
Research