Medical coo as pigeons are trained to screen cancer

It may sound a bird-brained idea but scientists believe pigeons could be used as cancer-screening pathologists.

Pigeons are as good as humans at spotting signs of breast cancer in biopsy samples

A study has found with the right training, pigeons are as good as humans at spotting signs of breast cancer in biopsy samples and mammogram scans. Previous research had already shown the common pigeon, Columba livia, has an extraordinary ability to categorise a wide range of objects and images and can distinguish between human faces and expressions and even paintings by different artists.

To test their abilities even further, scientists cast a group of pigeons in the role of pathologists and radiologists helping to diagnose breast cancer with birds taught how to recognise microscope slides and mammogram scan images showing evidence of benign or malignant tissue. They proved adept at sorting out the slide samples, the scientists found.

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Lead researcher Professor Richard Levenson, from the University of California at Davis, US, said: “With some training and selective food reinforcement, pigeons do just as well as humans in categorising digitised slides and mammograms of benign and malignant human breast tissue.

“The birds were adept at discriminating between benign and malignant breast cancer slides at all magnifications.”

But they found it more difficult to classify suspicious masses on the scans – a task described as “very challenging” even for expert humans. Pigeons possess neural pathways strikingly similar to those at work in the human brain, said the scientists.

, whose findings appear in the online Public Library of Science ONE.