Radiologists Can Spot Abnormal Mammograms in ‘the Blink of an Eye’

Researchers hope to translate that skill to computer screening systems.


Photo by Dana Guth

Trust your radiologist. A new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) shows that trained experts can identify an abnormal mammogram “in the blink of an eye,” a skill that researchers hope to isolate and translate to computer screening technology.

It’s common lore that radiologists can almost sense an atypical scan, but a team of researchers from BWH, the University of York, and MD Andersen Cancer Center found it to be true. They showed trained radiologists mammograms for a mere half second, and found that they could detect abnormalities at better-than-chance rates—that is, frequently enough to suggest it wasn’t a series of lucky guesses.

“Radiologists can have ‘hunches’ after a first look at a mammogram,” Jeremy Wolfe, the study’s senior author, said in a statement. “We found that these hunches are based on something real in the images. It’s really striking that in the blink of an eye, an expert can pick up on something about that mammogram that indicates abnormality.”

But the study’s significance has less to do with doctors’ quick reaction times—while they’re impressive, a good doctor would never make a snap analysis with an actual patient—and more to do with what’s allowing clinicians to recognize unusual tissue.

The study subjects were able to detect abnormal tissue even when it wasn’t actually cancerous, or when a woman’s cancer was in her other breast. That, combined with the speed and accuracy with which radiologists made their assessments, suggests that there’s a “global signal of abnormality,” one that radiologists may not even consciously identify, that helps a trained eye spot problems.

The next step is figuring out exactly what that signal is, and programming computer screening systems to pick it up. Doing so could make breast cancer scans as fast and easy as the blink of an eye.