Based on research by Mahooney, et al 2010; Poling, A., et al, 201l, written by Katie Kavanaugh, MS, BCBA & Josh Pritchard, Ph.D.
How does Al Poling, a behavior analyst, medically diagnose with one trained rat at a time? Dr. Poling and his team of researchers trained rats, who have a keen sense of smell, to detect tuberculosis in sputum samples. Using the principles of behavior analysis, specifically, using a system of rewards, they taught the rat to distinguish between sputum samples that contained Tuberculosis and those which did not.
But are rats as accurate as technicians using microscopes? Al Poling’s Team in two studies found rats detected TB cases missed by technicians, making them 30-44% more accurate. And not only are the rats more accurate, they are faster. The rats were able to test the samples by scent alone whereas traditional methods require technicians to observe the TB bacillus in the sample using a microscope. This means that the rats are able to test 100s of samples a day whereas a lab technician is only able to test 30-40 and that’s if they are efficient.
Millions die of TB in Africa. Though African technicians need skills in the technology of rat training and handling, with further research, trained rats may be an important new tool and provide a valuable service for humankind.
Mahooney, A.M., Weetjens, B.J., Cox, C., Beyene, N., Mgode, G., Jubitana, M., Kuipers, D., Kazwala, R., Mfinanga, G.S., Durgin, A., & Poling, A. (2011). Using giant African pouched rats to detect tuberculosis in human sputum samples: 2010 findings, Pan African Medical Journal, 9(28).
Poling, A., Weetjens, B., Cox, C., Beyene, N., Durgin, A., & Mahoney, A. (2011). Tuberculosis detection by giant African pouched rats, The Behavior Analyst, 34, 47-54.