The next time you are in the city and see a pigeon, think twice before disregarding them. It turns out, common pigeons – when trained to evaluate medical images – can make the correct diagnosis of breast cancer’s presence.
In a recent study conducted, pigeons performed at a level of accuracy high enough to rival medical practitioners. According to the research group’s leader, Richard Levenson, Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at University of California – Davis: “Pigeons may not be able to write poetry, but they’ve had millions of years to develop the abilities that they need to navigate a very complicated and dangerous world. So it doesn’t surprise me that they can do pathology!”
Indeed, Professor E. Wasserman, from the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences is not surprised by the study’s results. Wasserman touts the pigeon’s brain as “a marvel of miniaturization.” For instance, while humans have three color receptors, science reveals pigeons have five. Then, too, pigeon peripheral vision is more extensive than that found in humans. Plus, with countless hours spent on scanning everywhere for tiny seeds and insects, the common pigeon has highly tuned capabilities in detecting anomalies visually.
How was the study conducted? Levenson’s team trained 16 pigeons to differentiate images from mammograms and biopsy slides that were displayed on a touch screen. The touch screen likewise had two choice buttons – a blue for malignant and a yellow for benign. The pigeons were rewarded with food pellets when their choices coincided with the right answer.
At first the pigeons were selecting the right answer 50 percent of the time, which is akin to pure chance. However, by Day 15, their answers were 85 percent right. Then after Day 25 the pigeons’ success rate was at nearly 90 percent!
How is this possible? Pigeons, by nature, have long-term visual memories and are able to remember upwards of 1,800 images.
What’s more, pigeons are known to be very good at differentiating things. Way back in 2009, for example, a team from Japan’s Keio University, under the guidance of psychologist Shigeru Watanabe, were able to train a group of pigeons into accurately recognizing whether a painting was by Monet or by Picasso. Watanabe attributes this to the birds’ highly attuned visual cognition abilities.
This more recent finding that reveals pigeon ability to differentiate normal from cancerous images has both the medical and scientific communities all a-buzz. The University of New Hampshire’s associate professor of psychology Brett Gibson explains: “There are lots of ways that their [the pigeons’] acute visual system can be used to help humans.”
Levenson agrees, citing that the pigeons can help with “the tedious grunt work of evaluating the products of new imaging systems, which are constantly being developed to improve the accuracy of cancer diagnosis.” Of course, the pigeons will in no way be replacing humans in doing the work any time soon. Not only will it be difficult to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, but more studies still have to be conducted as well.
Wasserman, for one, hopes to use more advanced cameras to possibly track the eye movements of pigeons as they examine and sort the diagnostic images. Perhaps by doing so the cameras can clue us in on how pigeons are able to perform so well. “We’ve got some extremely exciting opportunities ahead,” Wasserman adds.