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Study shows pigeons can help identify breast cancer

By Daniel Uria
Study shows pigeons can help identify breast cancer
A joint study between the University of California, Davis and the University of Iowa discovered that pigeons have an inherent ability to distinguish between healthy and cancerous breast tissue from digitized mammogram images. Photo By Richard Levenson/Plos One

DAVIS, Calif., Nov. 19 (UPI) -- A joint study between the University of California, Davis and the University of Iowa discovered that pigeons have an inherent ability to do things some doctors spend years learning.

The study revealed that the common pigeon can distinguish between healthy and cancerous breast tissue from digitized mammogram images.

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"The birds proved to have a remarkable ability to distinguish benign from malignant human breast histopathology after training with differential food reinforcement," the study states.

The two Universities decided to collaborate on the study after lead author and professor at UC Davis Health System Richard Levenson discovered a study on pigeons by the University of Iowa.

Professor of psychological and brain sciences Edward Wasserman discovered that pigeons had the ability to categorize and recall more than 1,800 images.

"Research over the past 50 years has shown that pigeons can distinguish identities and emotional expressions on human faces, letters of the alphabet, misshapen pharmaceutical capsules, and even paintings by Monet vs. Picasso," Wasserman said.

Levenson then decided to test the application of this skill in the medical field by having pigeons evaluate pathology slides.

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The pigeons were shown images of mammogram results and trained to identify them as healthy or cancerous by pecking a blue or yellow rectangle on either side of the image. A machine would then distribute a food capsule if the pigeon made the correct choice in order to reinforce this behavior.

Over the course of the study the pigeons accuracy increased from 50 percent to an average of 84 percent and even reached as high as 99 percent when researchers had the four birds evaluate the images as a group.

At the end of the study Levenson and the rest of the group determined that pigeons could serve as "faithful mimics" of humans while studying mammogram results.

"The pigeons learned to correctly identify cancer-relevant micro calcifications on mammograms, but they had a tougher time classifying suspicious masses on mammograms -- a task that is extremely difficult, even for skilled human observers," Levenson said.

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