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Shelly Fan

Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration. While studying biological brains, she became fascinated with AI and all things biotech. Following graduation, she moved to UCSF to study blood-based factors that rejuvenate aged brains. She is the co-founder of Vantastic Media, a media venture that explores science stories through text and video, and runs the award-winning blog NeuroFantastic.com. Her first book, "Will AI Replace Us?" (Thames & Hudson) was published in 2019.

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From This Author


AI-Powered Brain Implant Eases Severe Depression With a Zap of Electricity

Sarah hadn’t laughed in five years. At 36 years old, the avid home cook has struggled with depression since early childhood. She tried the whole range of antidepressant medications and therapy for decades. Nothing worked....

Moonshot Project Aims to Understand and Beat Cancer Using Protein Maps

Understanding cancer is like assembling IKEA furniture. Hear me out. Both start with individual pieces that make up the final product. For a cabinet, it’s a list of labeled precut plywood. For cancer, it’s a...

Scientists Completed the First Human Genome 20 Years Ago. How Far Have We Come, and What’s Next?

If the Human Genome Project (HGP) was an actual human, he or she would be a revolutionary whiz kid. A prodigy in the vein of Mozart. One who changed the biomedical universe forever as...

Scientists Create Artificial Mitochondria That Can Make Energy for Damaged Cells

Cells like to gulp and burp. It’s not indigestion. Rather, cells squeeze out little fatty blobs that can merge with another cell as a way to share materials and information. It’s an integral part...

The CRISPR Family Tree Holds a Multitude of Untapped Gene Editing Tools

Thanks to CRISPR, gene therapy and “designer babies” are now a reality. The gene editing Swiss army knife is one of the most impactful biomedical discoveries of the last decade. Now a new study...

Deep Learning Is Tackling Another Core Biology Mystery: RNA Structure

Deep learning is solving biology’s deepest secrets at breathtaking speed. Just a month ago, DeepMind cracked a 50-year-old grand challenge: protein folding. A week later, they produced a totally transformative database of more than 350,000...

Surprise! Our Bodies Have Been Hiding a Trojan Horse for Gene Therapy

Nature hides astonishing medical breakthroughs. Take CRISPR, the transformative gene editing tool. It was inspired by a lowly bacterial immune defense system and co-opted to edit our genes to treat inherited diseases, bolster cancer treatments,...

Molecular Farming Means the Next Vaccine Could Be Edible and Grown in a Plant

It’s the dog days of summer. You bite down on a plump, chilled orange. Citrus juice explodes in your mouth in a refreshing, tingling burst. Ahh. And congratulations—you’ve just been vaccinated for the latest virus. That’s...

A Secret to Healthy Aging May Be the Bugs in Your Microbiome

The group of Japanese centenarians had seemingly magical health powers. Sure, with an average age of 107, they’re among the longest-living humans on Earth. But they were also shockingly healthy, protected from chronic diseases that...

New ‘Universal Switch’ Lets Scientists Fine-Tune Gene Therapy

The dose makes the poison. That’s the central tenet of pharmacology. Even salt can kill you if you take too little or too much. The one transformative treatment that hasn’t followed this rule? Gene therapy. It’s...

Scientists Bred Healthy Mice Using Artificial Eggs and Ovaries Made From Stem Cells

The baby mice popcorning around their cages looked utterly normal. But in fact, they’re a technological wonder: they were born from bioengineered eggs matured inside a man-made ovary. Even crazier, both the eggs and...

Protein Folding AI Is Making a ‘Once in a Generation’ Advance in Biology

Thanks to AI, we just got stunningly powerful tools to decode life. In two back-to-back papers last week, scientists at DeepMind and the University of Washington described deep learning-based methods to solve protein folding—the last...

Treating the Brain Through the Stomach: Tweaking the Gut Microbiome Slowed ALS in Mice

Ask any neuroscientist 20 years ago if gut bug excrement could slow down an untreatable brain disease, and they’d brush off the idea without a second thought. Yet the gut-brain connection has emerged as one...

How Virtual Reality Unveiled a Unique Brain Wave That Could Boost Learning

As the rats ran down a short balance beam, stopping occasionally to poke their noses at a water fountain, their brains knew something was off. Inside the hippocampus, a brain region that documents the stories...

A New Brain Implant Automatically Detects and Kills Pain in Real Time

Chronic pain is like a horror movie monster that sneaks up on you. It’s unpredictable, lingers silently, and when it strikes it’s often too late to tame. More diabolically, our best weapon against it—pain...

The Four Stages of Intelligent Matter That Will Bring Us Iron Man’s ‘Endgame’ Nanosuit

Imagine clothing that can warm or cool you, depending on how you’re feeling. Or artificial skin that responds to touch, temperature, and wicks away moisture automatically. Or cyborg hands controlled with DNA motors that...

A Google AI Designed a Computer Chip as Well as a Human Engineer—But Much Faster

AI has finally come full circle. A new suite of algorithms by Google Brain can now design computer chips—those specifically tailored for running AI software—that vastly outperform those designed by human experts. And the system...

Scientists Used CRISPR to Engineer a New ‘Superbug’ That’s Invincible to All Viruses

Can we reprogram existing life at will? To synthetic biologists, the answer is yes. The central code for biology is simple. DNA letters, in groups of three, are translated into amino acids—Lego blocks that make...

What’s the Origin of Consciousness? Global Effort Puts Two Top Theories to the Test

How does consciousness work? A frenemy collaboration is duking it out. Six different teams from across the globe are uniting in a challenge to test our fundamental theories of consciousness. They don’t agree on where...

How Gene Therapy and Algae Proteins Partially Restored a Blind Man’s Sight

Thanks to gene therapy and optogenetics—a neuroscience game-changer that relies on light to control neurons—a previously blind man can now partially see the world. And he’s doing it with the help of light-sensing algae...

A New Brain Implant Turns Thoughts Into Text With 90 Percent Accuracy

Texting might not be faster than speech, but for many of us it’s a natural way to communicate. Thanks to a new brain-computer interface (BCI), people with paralysis can now do the same—with a twist....

A New Gene Editing Tool Could Rival CRISPR, and Makes Millions of Edits at Once

With CRISPR’s meteoric rise as a gene editing marvel, it’s easy to forget its lowly origins: it was first discovered as a quirk of the bacterial immune system. It seems that bacteria have more to...

23andMe’s Huge Covid-19 Study Draws Links Between the Virus and Our Genetics

Last spring, in a race against Covid-19, 23andMe launched an ambitious study to answer a question on everyone’s minds: who’s likely to get sick, or to get very sick? And being 23andMe, they hunted for...

A New CRISPR Tool Flips Genes On and Off Like a Light Switch

CRISPR is revolutionary. It’s also a total brute. The classic version of the gene editing wunderkind literally slices a gene to bits just to turn it off. It’s effective, yes. But it’s like putting an...

Scientists Grew Human Cells in Monkey Embryos, and Yes, It’s an Ethical Minefield

Few things in science freak people out more than human-animal hybrids. Named chimeras, after the mythical Greek creature that’s an amalgam of different beasts, these part-human, part-animal embryos have come onto the scene to...

A Massive New Gene Editing Project Is Out to Crush Alzheimer’s

When it comes to Alzheimer’s versus science, science is on the losing side. Alzheimer’s is cruel in the most insidious way. The disorder creeps up in some aging brains, gradually eating away at their ability...

How Scientists Grew Human Muscles in Pig Embryos, and Why It Matters for Organ Transplants

The little pigs bouncing around the lab looked exceedingly normal. Yet their adorable exterior hid a remarkable secret: each piglet carried two different sets of genes. For now, both sets came from their own...

How Scientists Used Ultrasound to Read Monkeys’ Minds

Thanks to neural implants, mind reading is no longer science fiction. As I’m writing this sentence, a tiny chip with arrays of electrodes could sit on my brain, listening in on the crackling of my...

Scientists Created an Artificial Early Embryo From Human Skin Cells

We all know how human reproduction works: sperm meets egg, fertilized egg kicks off its journey, transforms into a human embryo, then becomes a fetus and ultimately a baby. But what if boy meets girl...

Quantum Computing and Reinforcement Learning Are Joining Forces to Make Faster AI

Deep reinforcement learning is having a superstar moment. Powering smarter robots. Simulating human neural networks. Trouncing physicians at medical diagnoses and crushing humanity’s best gamers at Go and Atari. While far from achieving the flexible,...

This Soft Robot Stingray Just Explored the Deepest Point in the Ocean

While all eyes were on the dramatic descent of NASA’s Perseverance rover last month, a team sent a robot into another alien world, one closer to home: the deep sea. With its towering undersea mountains,...

This AI Thrashes the Hardest Atari Games by Memorizing Its Best Moves

Learning from rewards seems like the simplest thing. I make coffee, I sip coffee, I’m happy. My brain registers “brewing coffee” as an action that leads to a reward. That’s the guiding insight behind deep...

Scientists Communicated With People While They Were Lucid Dreaming

We’ve probed the depths of Earth’s deepest trench, sent rovers to Mars, and observed other worlds billions of light years away. Yet we’ve never been able to decipher the mysterious, bizarre, and disjointed world...

Massive National Health Study Looks to Tailor Your Diet to Your Genetic Makeup

Like taxes and death, nutrition is something we can’t escape. Eating should be easy. Yet it’s also massively confusing, prone to misinformation, and utterly personal. Take competitive eaters who regularly chow down on thousands of...

This ‘Quantum Brain’ Would Mimic Our Own to Speed Up AI

Unless you’re in the lithium battery or paint business, you’re probably not familiar with cobalt. Yet according to a new paper, it may be the secret sauce for an entirely new kind of computer—one...

This Is Where Empathy Lives in the Brain, and How It Works

Mind reading comes easily to most of us. For all our divisions, humans are uncannily efficient at simulating another person’s thoughts and beliefs. It’s how you can “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” know...

Scientists Made a Biohybrid Nose Using Cells From Mosquitoes

Thanks to biological parts of a mosquito’s “nose,” we’re finally closer to Smell-O-Vision for computers. And a way to diagnose early cancer. With the recent explosion in computing hardware prowess and AI, we’ve been able...

A Language AI Is Accurately Predicting Covid-19 ‘Escape’ Mutations

For all their simplicity, viruses are sneaky little life forces. Take SARS-Cov-2, the virus behind Covid-19. Challenged with the human immune system, the virus has gradually reshuffled parts of its genetic material, making it easier...

Meet Assembloids, Mini Human Brains With Muscles Attached

It’s not often that a twitching, snowman-shaped blob of 3D human tissue makes someone’s day. But when Dr. Sergiu Pasca at Stanford University witnessed the tiny movement, he knew his lab had achieved something special....

2021 Could Be a Banner Year for AI—If We Solve These 4 Problems

If AI has anything to say to 2020, it’s “you can’t touch this.” Last year may have severed our connections with the physical world, but in the digital realm, AI thrived. Take NeurIps, the crown...

Fighting Covid-19 Brought These Lasting Breakthroughs to Science and Medicine

2020 was the year of the pandemic. But the arrival of Covid-19 in January not only threw an Earth-sized wrench into our lives, it also dictated the course of scientific discovery. Never before have...

2020 in Neuroscience, Longevity, and AI—and What’s to Come

Covid-19 sucked most of the oxygen out of science this year. But we still had brilliant wins. The pandemic couldn’t bring rockets or humans down: multiple missions blasted off to the red planet in the...

DeepMind’s AlphaFold Is Close to Solving One of Biology’s Greatest Challenges

DeepMind may just have cracked one of the grandest challenges in biology. One that rivals the discovery of DNA’s double helix. It could change biomedicine, drug discovery, and vaccine development forever. The actual achievement sounds...

How Does Social Interaction Change Our Brains? Hyperscans Can Show Us

Brain scans, like social distancing, are inherently very lonely. Regardless of the equipment, brain scans often rely on a single person performing a single task, often completely still, outside of their normal environment. It’s powerful,...

Breakthrough NASA Study Discovers Surprising Key to Astronauts’ Health in Space

Thanks to SpaceX, traveling beyond Earth now seems pretty tangible for us commoners. True, a ticket to the International Space Station currently runs $55 million (ouch). Technologically, however, the triumphant splashdown of SpaceX’s astronaut-carrying Dragon...

Another Win for Senolytics: Fighting Aging at the Cellular Level Just Got Easier

Longevity research always reminds me of the parable of blind men and an elephant. A group of blind men, who’ve never seen an elephant before, each touches a different part of the elephant’s body...

This Is How We’ll Engineer Artificial Touch

Take a Jeopardy! guess: this body part was once referred to as the “consummation of all perfection as an instrument.” Answer: “What is the human hand?” Our hands are insanely complex feats of evolutionary engineering. Densely-packed...

How Do We Remember Places? This Study Used Lasers and VR to Point the Way

The curious contraption at University College London bordered between scientific wizardry and a terrifying Black Mirror episode. It might have just proved a decades-long theory of how the brain’s GPS system works. Let me paint...

Media Multitasking Is Ruining Our Memory. Can We Fix It?

I picked up a bad habit during lockdown: binge Netflix at double speed, while scrolling through the Twitter cesspool on my phone. I think I feel mentally stimulated, and trick myself into believing that...

Can We Wipe Out All Coronaviruses for Good? Here’s What a Group of 200 Scientists Think

One vaccine to rule them all. That was the blue sky goal for a new global collaboration with hopes to beat coronaviruses. I’m not just talking about SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for our current...

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