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updated: 6/12/2017 6:22 AM

Pigeons as radiologists? It's not as far-fetched as you think

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Although this may sound far-fetched, the next person reading your mammogram may actually be a pigeon. I recently read a medical study evaluating the ability of pigeons to read mammograms. Although this study was done as a way of enhancing the ability of a computer to read a mammogram, I found this study to be both enlightening and disturbing.

A half a century of research has shown that, like humans, pigeons are able to discriminate complex visual stimuli. Pigeons can consistently identify individual letters of the alphabet, emotional expressions of humans and differentiate the subtle differences between a normal pharmaceutical capsule and ones that have been damaged.

They can make distinctions between animals, flowers, furniture and even cars. (This may explain why my car, sitting in the driveway, is the only one to be hit with pigeon droppings, especially after a car wash.)

A pigeon's ability to see and discriminate is so good that they can even distinguish between a painting by Monet and Picasso. The visual memory center of a pigeon's brain is also quite impressive. They can recall more than 1,800 distinct images.

Understanding how the pigeon's visual system works may shed light on how our own visual system works because they are quite similar. In addition this helps computer scientists and engineers to make better visual systems for computers and robots.

The physicians who usually read mammograms are either pathologists or radiologists. These physicians go through many years of education and training to learn how to differentiate between the subtle differences of normal and cancerous breast tissue. Even with extensive training there can be difficulty in arriving at the correct diagnosis.

This is one area of medicine for which there is considerable room for improvement. Improvement can be through additional training, but computers and image acquisition technology also is helpful.

At this time, computers alone do not reproduce human performance well enough and -- as good as computers are -- their results have to be validated by physicians in order to ensure quality and reliability. These checks and balances are necessary to make sure the diagnosis is accurate.

This can be a time-consuming and expensive process. Pigeons, on the other hand, have been suggested as a reasonable option.

This medical study was conducted at the Universities of California at Davis, Emory and Iowa and was published in the medical journal PLos One. The pigeons were as accurate as radiologists in finding potentially malignant groups of cells. However, other aspects of reading and interpreting a mammogram require more brainpower and pigeons fell short.

The pigeons did perform well enough that the authors noted: "Overall, our results suggest that pigeons can be used as suitable surrogates for human observers in certain medical image perception studies, thus avoiding the need to recruit, pay, and retain clinicians … for relatively mundane tasks."

The next time you are in a hospital, if you see a very short physician in a white lab coat, no shoes and a characteristic head bob while walking, it may be your "radiology" pigeon.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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