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
SEP 11, 2018
Videos
SEP 11, 2018
Eat Mediterranean Food and Live Longer?
In southern European countries, the "Mediterranean Diet" is widespread and lauded as a healthy way to eat. It’s caught on all over the worl...
SEP 13, 2018
Videos
SEP 13, 2018
Antibiotics Are Still Being Over-Prescribed by Some Health Facilities
The opioid abuse problem continues unabated, despite public health efforts to curb the use of narcotic painkillers that can cause dependence and push patie...
SEP 20, 2018
Videos
SEP 20, 2018
The Lowdown on Vaccine Development and Production
Learn more about how vaccines are developed and tested, from the CDC....
OCT 02, 2018
Chemistry & Physics
OCT 02, 2018
Iridium Anomaly and The Extinction of Dinosaurs
Iridium is a hard, dense, silver-looking transition metal often found in high abundance in meteorites. When the higher-than-usual amount of iridium (around...
OCT 08, 2018
Technology
OCT 08, 2018
The SolarFlower is a Promising New Take on Solar Energy
Solar energy is a clean and renewable energy source with promising applications in the near future as solar panel technology matures. SmartFlower is an int...
OCT 11, 2018
Videos
OCT 11, 2018
An Inexpensive Kit Teaches Kids About Molecular Biology
Biology is advancing at a rapid pace. Students will be ready for those advances if they can learn about cutting-edge concepts at an early age....
Loading Comments...