Experienced radiologists can spot subtle signs of breast cancer in mammogram images in just half a second, a study has found.
Often they have no more than a hunch that something is wrong.
However, in reality their sharp eyes and brains pick up abnormalities at an astonishing speed, researchers believe.
Furthermore, they seem to be able to recognise cancer in images that show no obvious signs of disease.
Jeremy Wolfe, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US, who led the study of 49 radiologists, said: “Radiologists can have hunches after a first look at a mammogram. 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.
“Not only that, but they can detect something abnormal in the other breast, the breast that does not contain a lesion,” said Dr Wolfe.
In clinics, radiologists carefully evaluate mammograms with the help of computer-automated image screening systems. In reality they would never make a diagnosis based on a half-second-long assessment, but tests showed they were able to identify abnormalities at better than chance levels within this time.
Their accuracy did not depend on breast symmetry or density, but was improved by finer details of the texture of breast tissue.
“These results suggest there may be something in the nominally normal breast that looks abnormal and is detectable.
“Together, these results suggest radiologists may be picking up on some sort of early, global signal of abnormality that is unknown to us at this point,” said Dr Wolfe.
The findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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