Pigeons can diagnose malignant breast cancer tissue

Pigeons can diagnose malignant breast cancer tissue

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Visual abilities of pigeons can be used for medicine?
Pigeons can distinguish benign from malignant breast tissue in pictures and correctly identify cancer-relevant microcalcifications on mammograms, scientists from the University of California (UC) report on their current research results. The latter is "a task that is extremely difficult even for qualified human observers," said the UC.

According to the US researchers, pigeons have special visual skills that could possibly be used for medical purposes. "With a bit of training and targeted food enhancement, pigeons were just as good as people at categorizing digitized slides and mammograms of benign and malignant human breast tissue," says study author Professor Richard Levenson from the UC. The scientists published their results in the specialist magazine "PLoS One".

Training on the monitor
Based on previous studies on the special visual abilities of pigeons, the University of California scientists have investigated whether birds can also contribute to the evaluation of images for cancer diagnosis. For the study, 16 pigeons learned to distinguish images with benign breast tissue from images with malignant breast tissue on a monitor. They had to peck the correct answer on the monitor and then received a reward for it. If the decision was wrong, no reward was given and the birds were given the picture again to correct their mistake. In a first test series, the pigeons worked their way through numerous images with different magnifications, colors and contrast strengths before they were able to apply the knowledge they had learned in a second experiment.

Combined results with 99 percent accuracy
In the second experiment, the pigeons were again shown pictures of benign and malignant breast tissue, but these were completely new pictures. They also received a reward in this attempt, regardless of whether their decision was right or wrong. The test showed that “the pigeons were able to generalize what they had learned and to correctly identify the majority of the digitized slides,” says Prof. Levenson. The birds are remarkably adept at differentiating between benign and malignant breast cancer, the doctor reports. This skill usually requires long training for people. The diagnostic accuracy of the pigeons increased from 50 percent in the beginning to almost 85 percent after around two weeks of training. When the results from four birds were combined, the accuracy even increased to 99 percent.

Deaf in medicine?
In a further experiment, the scientists trained the pigeons to differentiate mammography images with and without microcalcifications, with an average accuracy of 84 percent being achieved. A feat that, according to the researchers, is also on par with human radiologists. However, the pigeons had difficulty in distinguishing the density of the breast tissue, which is also crucial in determining breast cancer. Overall, however, according to the researchers, the pigeons showed a promising potential that could also be used for medical purposes. For example, the birds could be used to validate newly developed imaging technologies, which is a "difficult, time-consuming, and costly activity" that normally requires the recruitment of medical professionals for this "comparatively mundane task," write Levenson and colleagues. (fp)

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Video: #Pigeon Birdbrains? Pigeons capable of recognizing malignant tumors in breast tissue


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