NOV 21, 2015 7:07 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.
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