NOV 21, 2015 07:07 AM PST

Pigeons Take a Peck at Cancer, and They

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

The humble pigeon, commonly referenced as a public nuisance or a pea-brained "rat with wings," may have earned its most illustrious label yet: a cancer detector!

It's true that the pigeon's brain is about one-thousandth the size of the human brain, but despite their pea-sized brains, pigeons turn out to be smarter than we think. Pigeons can be trained with visual cues to categorize objects, distinguish alphabet letters, and even recognize people in different clothing. Their vision may even be superior to ours, as they can see wavelengths of light that we can't.

Exploiting this visual acuity and ability to recall patterns, researchers tested whether pigeons can be trained to recognize and categorize normal vs. cancer images? The birds trained on 144 histology images at different magnifications and different diagnoses. Each time it pecked the correct answer box, the pigeon got a food reward. After training, the pigeons were reported to have a "remarkable" 85% accuracy rate, identifying correctly if the images were normal or malignant.

The 85% accuracy is quite impressive for an animal thought to be near brain-less, but rest assured, it's not nearly accurate enough for anyone to use pigeons in place of human experts. But this study shows that pigeons can be used in other areas of diagnostic testing, informing researchers on pattern recognition schemes. If nothing else, this study has hopefully elevated the status of the humble pigeons.
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
OCT 31, 2018
Videos
OCT 31, 2018
Why does severe pain cause vomiting?
Feeling nausea or vomiting are known to be common side effects of severe pain. But, why? To answer this question, research was conducted on surgical patien...
NOV 01, 2018
Chemistry & Physics
NOV 01, 2018
Oil Absorbing Sponge Made from Wood
  It has been eight years since the crude oil spill in the Mexico Gulf, but the shadow of aquatic petroleum contamination has never been far away. To...
NOV 15, 2018
Videos
NOV 15, 2018
A Season of Outbreaks
In a few different places around the world, people are facing disease outbreaks due to pathogenic microbes....
NOV 18, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 18, 2018
All About NASA's Plan to Drill Deeper Into Mars Than Ever Before
When NASA’s InSight lander arrives at Mars, it will land near the planet’s equator at Elysium Planitia. This location is flat, which is ideal f...
DEC 09, 2018
Cardiology
DEC 09, 2018
Discharge After Angioplasty Safe, Reduces Cost
Of the 600,000 coronary angioplasties performed in the United States each year, about half of them are elective procedures. A person may opt to undergo the...
DEC 12, 2018
Cardiology
DEC 12, 2018
Chest Discomfort May Not Stem From The Heart
Many people who experience symptoms like difficulty breathing, fatigue and tightness in the chest during physical activity, assume the problem stems from t...
Loading Comments...