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No, a Pigeon Won't Be Evaluating Your Next Mammogram

A recent study has inspired headlines about "pigeon pathologists" and how the birds may be "the next great cancer detector," but they need to be taken with a grain of salt.

by Sydney Lupkin
Nov 20 2015, 10:20pm

Imagen vía Flickr

This story is part of a partnership between MedPage Today and VICE News.

Researchers have successfully trained pigeons to spot breast cancer calcifications in X-rays and microscope slides — but radiologists won't be employing feathery colleagues anytime soon.

Richard Levenson, a pathologist at the University of California Davis Medical Center, and his co-authors trained pigeons to recognize cancerous calcifications over the course of 15 days, using food to reinforce good behavior. According to their study, which was published this week in the medical journal PLOS One, they presented calcification images to the birds and taught them to peck yellow or blue buttons on a touchscreen to identify those that were benign or malignant.

Although the birds were only correct about half of the time on the first day, they were able to answer correctly 85 percent of the time between days 13 and 15 — a rate of success that the study's authors said is on par with that of radiologists.

They found that the more compressed an image was, the more poorly the birds performed, though further training helped.

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The study has spurred headlines about "pigeon pathologists" and how pigeons may be "the next great cancer detector," but such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt.

'I'm not sure how this is going to help us do anything.'

"The authors are not suggesting that pigeons read mammograms," said Dr. Debra Monticciolo, who chairs the breast imaging commission of the American College of Radiology and was not involved in the study. "Certainly there is nothing here to suggest application directly to image evaluation today."

The pigeons weren't doing anything that doctors and computers can't already do. In fact, their task was much easier. What's more, the researchers noted that the pigeons "utterly failed" at classifying breast cancer masses without calcifications even after weeks of training.

"I'm not sure what to make of this," said Dr. Donna Plecha, who directs the breast imaging and mammography programs at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and was not involved in the study. "I'm not sure how this is going to help us do anything."

She stressed that the pigeons weren't presented with the same kinds of images radiologists typically analyze. When a radiologist gets an image, a calcification can be hidden anywhere, Plecha said, but the birds were given images of small areas with calcifications that had been blown up to make them easy to see.

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Levenson said he got the idea for the study listening to the radio in his car, when he heard a report about how pigeons can perform visual recall tasks.

"For no good reason, I said, 'Hmm, I wonder if a pigeon can do pathology,' " he recalled. "The origin of the project had no highfalutin goals. Just an idle question which eventually turned into something that was really interesting."

He and his collaborators hope their study will someday be used to help justify using pigeons as cheaper stand-ins for radiologists in studies of whether new imaging technologies are easy or hard to use.

But Levenson said that despite all the headlines, he wanted to stress "our respect for our fellow creatures and our newfound appreciation for all of the skills they can complete, tasks they can perform, and how they're really similar on existential grounds with humans."

"I think it makes us more humble, and more appreciative of our fellow planet inhabitants," he added. "We're all in this together."

The pigeons had no comment.

Follow Sydney Lupkin on Twitter: @slupkin