Scientists teach pigeons to detect cancer

Pigeons are uncommonly good at distinguishing cancerous from normal breast tissue, a study published in PLOS One by UC Davis and University of Iowa researchers has found.

With some training and selective food reinforcement, pigeons do just as well as humans in categorizing digitized slides and mammograms of benign and malignant human breast tissue.

The pigeons were able to generalize what they had learned, so that when they viewed a completely new set of normal and cancerous digitized slides, they correctly identified them.

Their accuracy, like that of humans, was modestly affected by the presence or absence of color in the images, as well as by degrees of image compression. The pigeons also learned to correctly identify cancer-relevant microcalcifications on mammograms, but they had a tougher time classifying suspicious masses on mammograms -- a task that is extremely difficult, even for skilled human observers.

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