Why sheep were taught to recognise Barack Obama!
Perhaps you taught your dog to sit or taught your cat to respond to their name.
But this pales in comparison to some of the skills other animals learn to improve human health.
Recently, Good Health revealed how scientists have trained bees to play soccer as part of their work to help us understand how human memories work.
The bees had to move a ball to a target, for which they received a reward (a drop of nectar); in this way the bees learned to record the skill in memory.
But they’re not the only smart creatures being trained to perform tasks that will ultimately help our health…
In March, researchers in France published a trial in the journal iScience showing that they had trained ants to detect cancer cells.
‘Cells are like small factories: they need fuel and they produce waste. Ants have an impressive sense of smell and can detect the specific waste of cancer cells,” explains Professor Baptiste Piqueret, an animal behavior researcher and lead author of the study.
The ants were trained by placing them in a room with a container of sugar solution next to a sample of ovarian cancer cells from human patients.
A team from Emory University in Atlanta has trained dogs to lie in MRI scanners, a process that requires them to be so still they can’t even scratch. This provides a non-invasive way to see how their brains work
As they drank the sugar solution, the ants could smell the cancer cells and began to associate this smell with reward.
“You won’t see ants in hospitals yet because the future of this method is to use not cells but urine or sweat – we expect that one day you will give a sample to your doctor and that will be presented to trained ants to see if they react to it,” says Professor Piqueret, now affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany.
While dogs are trained to detect Covid-19 infection and can warn their owners of impending drops in their blood sugar levels or seizures, “ants learn much faster, in minutes rather than months,” says Professor Piqueret.
Recently, Good Health revealed how scientists have trained bees to play soccer as part of their work to help us understand how human memories work
Rats at the wheel
Behavioral neuroscientist Professor Kelly Lambert, of Richmond University, Virginia, USA, has taught rats how to drive miniature cars.
In the experiment, the animals drove by pushing bars that moved them left and right — the goal was to learn how to navigate the car to a snack.
“We recently stopped fortifying them with treats and they still ride in the cars, so it seems they like it,” says Professor Lambert.
The findings may help us examine how changes in movement or spatial skills occur with age.
Behavioral neuroscientist Professor Kelly Lambert, of the University of Richmond, Virginia, USA, has taught rats how to drive miniature cars
A 2017 study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science found that sheep can be trained to recognize faces.
To train them, the sheep were given treats when they chose the face of a celebrity, including Barack Obama and Emma Watson, from a choice of two photos. It is hoped that examining things like how sheep’s ability to recognize faces changes over time can help us understand the cognitive effects of conditions such as Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers used sheep because they live relatively long — ten to 12 years on average — their brains are as complex as ours and, “importantly, because there are at least 16 genetic diseases caused by the same gene in sheep as in humans, including Huntington’s disease,” said study co-author Jenny Morton, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Cambridge.
“Cognitive decline in these conditions is very difficult to measure in humans, but this study gives us a way to track how abilities change.”
A 2017 study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science found that sheep can be trained to recognize faces. To train them, the sheep were given treats when they chose the face of a celebrity, including Barack Obama and Emma Watson, from a choice of two photos.
In 2015, a team from the University of Iowa in the US taught a group of pigeons to distinguish cancerous breast tissue from benign tissue on a mammogram – and in 2020 the same team published a paper in the journal Learning & Behavior explaining how they learned now five pigeons to detect abnormal heart scans.
Studies have shown that pigeons can organize objects into groups, and the team wondered if they could also read medical scans.
The test they looked at, a Myocardial Perfusion SPECT test, measures how well blood flows through the heart muscle. A traceable agent is injected into a vein. Healthy tissue absorbs the tracer, damaged tissue doesn’t — and this shows up as different colors on a scan. The pigeons were shown scans and learned to peck on two buttons – normal or abnormal. If they got their choice right, they got food.
Over time, they learned what was different about the photos and picked the right photo 80 to 85 percent of the time — the same speed trained people can read scans correctly.
But when tested with black and white photos, the pigeons were unable to distinguish between the images.
This finding is also helpful. “The medical imaging community is constantly evaluating whether to use artificial color to convey this kind of information and what colors to use, and this study showed that adding color helps a lot,” said Victor Navarro, who is on the Iowa trial. but now a research associate at Cardiff University.
“This was never to replace human experts doing the diagnostic work, but to use the pigeons as a way to evaluate new imaging techniques.”
A team from Emory University in Atlanta has trained dogs to lie in MRI scanners, a process that requires them to be so still they can’t even scratch. This provides a non-invasive way to see how their brains work.
MRI provides an image of the inside of the body. It’s not painful, but it’s loud, so the dogs are given hearing protectors and the team trained the dogs to get used to the noise by playing with them in the MRI room.
While its main use is to study dog behavior, a 2017 trial found a human health application — trying to figure out which particular animals might make good service dogs.
These dogs should have a calm and easygoing character. Breeds like Labradors are ideal, but even then 70 percent don’t make it.
In their study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers found that dogs with more activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which controls excitability, were more likely to fail if given a treat.
The process could one day be used by charities that train service dogs to save time and money.