Quirks & Quarks

Pigeons Pathologists Learn to Detect Cancer

Pigeons can be trained to use their acute visual abilities to recognize cancerous abnormalities in medical images, and this may ultimately help train doctors to do it better.

Pigeons are trained to recognize subtle signs of cancer in medical images.

Pigeon in training apparatus (Wasserman lab)
Pigeons can be trained to spot cancer on medical images, a difficult visual task that can take human doctors years to master. Dr. Ed Wasserman, a Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa, has taken his years of study of the remarkable visual systems of the ordinary pigeon, and applied it to cancer pathology.

Pigeons were trained for two weeks, in which they were shown pictures of cancerous and normal tissues. The birds pecked in one place if they saw cancer, and another when they didn't, and were rewarded when they pecked correctly. After two weeks, they were reliably able to spot cancer in new images better than 80% of the time.

Dr Wasserman hopes to use the pigeons to help understand what are the most important diagnostic features in the images, and, perhaps, even find new ways of training doctors by finding out how pigeons learn best.

Related Links

Paper in PLOS One
- PLOS release
- University of Iowa release
New York Times story
BBC News story