Pigeons can identify breast cancer on x-rays

Pigeons, as those in the know will tell you, get a bad rep. Often commonly regarded as ‘flying rats’ and associated with vermin, due to their propensity to gather and multiply in densely populated urban areas, their skills and learning abilities are often overlooked.

It was only a few generations ago that pigeons played an integral part in our communication systems, with the ‘Pigeon Post‘ and ‘War Pigeons‘ being used as recently as the 20th Century. In short, these birds can learn, and they learn quickly (why do you think they always congregate where all the food is?).

A recent academic study, published Nov 18th on PLoS One, has highlighted a recent experimental process in which pigeons have been trained to identify the calcium deposits in breast tissue which signify cancerous activities. The study, which is being led by Richard Levenson, M.D. of the University of California who was quoted as stating;

“With some training and selective food reinforcement, pigeons do just as well as humans in categorising digitised slides and mammograms of benign and malignant human breast tissue. 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. 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.”

While the studies may still be ongoing, this could prove to be a significant step in the field of cancer diagnosis.

Colin J McCracken

Colin J McCracken is a content designer, editor and writer from Ireland. Giving form and function to the My Good Planet vision, it has been his role to design and develop the online platform, content and presence of the project.

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