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Can Pigeon Radiologists Advance Medical Imaging Technology?

Posted Monday, July 11, 2016 by Tom Degan

It takes pathologists and radiologists years of education and training before they are able to accurately spot cancer on medical imaging studies. Apparently, pigeons — who share many visual system properties with humans — can be about as accurate with 14 days of training and some food pellets.

A recent study revealed that pigeons are well suited to help researchers better understand human medical image perception. In addition, these pigeons may help with the future development of medical imaging analysis tools. The study can be found accessed here:

Pigeons as Trainable Observers of Pathology and Radiology Breast Cancer Images

In the study, pigeons were shown three different type of image: actual breast tissue samples with and without cancerous masses, mammogram images with and without calcifications, and mammograms with benign or cancerous masses. The birds were taught to spot cancer and potentially cancer-linked calcifications over several days by being rewarded with a pellet of food each time one selected the correct button indicating the image was cancer free or had a malignancy. In order to ensure that pigeons were not memorizing which images were cancerous and not cancerous, researchers also showed the pigeons new images.

Among the images of actual tissue samples, the birds’ accuracy rose from 50% (equivalent to chance) to about 85% 15 days later. They performed just as well when they were shown new images. When the pigeons were taken as a group, and the choices of the majority tallied for each test, the pigeons demonstrated 99% accuracy in identifying cancer in the tissue sample images.

In addition, the pigeons’ accuracy on images showing calcifications on mammograms ranged from 72% to 84% by the end of training. However, mammograms proved problematic for the pigeons, since they were unable to differentiate between cancer and benign masses.

While pigeons won’t be diagnosing cancers in humans any time soon, they may be used to testing new medical technology being developed to diagnose cancer. The development of computer automated medical image technology would be a welcome new technology, and could provide an additional check to prevent overworked doctors from missing a cancer diagnosis.

Indeed, the study’s authors think that having pigeons view many images may prove to be a cost-effective way to test the accuracy of new medical imaging technology. Lets face it, it is difficult to find doctors would are willing to stare at a mind numbing numbers of images to help test and refine a new technology. This is where these pigeons could prove useful. After all, the pigeons are willing to review thousands of images at a much low cost—the price of a few food pellets.

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