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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) will be out April 2019.

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From This Author


How Deep Learning Is Transforming Brain Mapping

Thanks to deep learning, the tricky business of making brain atlases just got a lot easier. Brain maps are all the rage these days. From rainbow-colored dots that highlight neurons or gene expression across the...

This AI Uses Echolocation to Follow Your Every Move

Would you consent to a surveillance system that watches without video and listens without sound? If your knee-jerk reaction is “no!”, then “huh?” I’m with you. In a new paper in Applied Physics Letters, a...

The Prickly Debate on Germline Gene Therapy, and Moving It Forward

In 2016, a healthy baby boy came screaming into the world in a Mexican clinic. Harboring DNA from three parents, the baby had had his genes dramatically altered while still an embryo. Without the...

New Findings From the Human Microbiome Project

What if the solution to our health problems is already inside our bodies? The human body is replete with billions of microbugs thriving on our skin, inside our intestines, and even our private parts. Their...

DARPA’s New Project Is Investing Millions in Brain-Machine Interface Tech

When Elon Musk and DARPA both hop aboard the cyborg hypetrain, you know brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are about to achieve the impossible. BMIs, already the stuff of science fiction, facilitate crosstalk between biological wetware with...

The Crucial Role of Brain Simulation in Future Neuroscience

“Do we have a chance of ever understanding brain function without brain simulations?” So asked the Human Brain Project (HBP), the brainchild of Henry Markram, in a new paper in the prestigious journal Neuron. The...

How Two Paralyzed Patients Walked Again Without Surgery

Just a decade ago, the Walk Again Project was a blue sky, Hail Mary moonshot at total neural rehab for those paralyzed. The project, a collaboration among fearless neuroengineers, has the lofty goal of giving...

New Progress in Stem-Cell-Free Regenerative Medicine

Regenerative medicine and stem cells are often uttered within the same breath, for good reason. In animal models, stem cells have reliably reversed brain damage from Parkinson’s disease, repaired severed spinal cords, or restored damaged...

An AI for Image Recognition Spontaneously Gained a ‘Number Sense’

Many of us struggle with mathematical concepts, yet we’re all equipped with an innate “number sense,” or numerosity. Thanks to a strange group of “number neurons” buried in the visual cortex, human newborns, monkeys,...

The Hunt for a CRISPR Antidote Just Heated Up

When scientists behind the Manhattan Project heard of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their earlier exuberance gradually turned into morose regret. What began as a physics revolution had mutated into a weapon of...

How Researchers Used AI to Better Understand Biological Vision

A few years back, DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis famously prophesized that AI and neuroscience will positively feed into each other in a “virtuous circle.” If realized, this would fundamentally expand our insight into intelligence, both...

CRISPR Used in Human Trials for the First Time in the US

CRISPR just hit another landmark. Last week, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) confirmed that they have treated two cancer patients using the gene editing darling married with another biomedical wizard, CAR-T. For now, it’s too...

A Deceptively Simple Tweak to CRISPR Makes It 50 Times More Accurate

CRISPR may be the premiere gene editing prodigy poised to upend natural genomes and erase inherited diseases. But since its inception, one thing has always stood in the way: accuracy. Back in 2017, a contentious...

How AI Can Tap into the Collective Mind to Transform Healthcare

In 2013, IBM sold the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center on an audacious idea: that a single AI-powered platform, IBM Watson, could lend a digital hand to battle one of mankind’s most...

New Lifelike Biomaterial Self-Regenerates and Has a Metabolism

Life demands flux. Every living organism is constantly changing: cells divide and die, proteins build and disintegrate, DNA breaks and heals. Life demands metabolism—the simultaneous builder and destroyer of living materials—to continuously upgrade our bodies....

A Lab-Grown Brain Twitched an Isolated Muscle. Here’s Why That’s Amazing

Floating inside a petri dish in a lab at Cambridge University, a single disjointed muscle twitched. Normally that’s not news. But in this case, the surgically-dissected muscle is controlled by a slice of isolated brain...

Senolytics Show Promise Against Alzheimer’s in Mice

For the past quarter century, scientists battled Alzheimer’s disease under a single guiding principle: that protein clumps—beta-amyloid—deposited outside sensitive brain cells gradually damage neuronal functions and trigger memory loss. The solution seems simple: remove...

NASA Twins Study Provides New Insight Into How Space Travel Affects Human Health

Thanks to 18 years of humans continuously working on the International Space Station (ISS), we already have a basic idea of what happens to our Earth-grown bodies in zero gravity. Our hearts morph in...

New CRISPR Method Can Edit Over 13,000 Spots in a Single Cell

Dr. George Church, the legendary godfather of synthetic biology, just made another push towards massively editing life’s base code. Since the inception of gene editing, long before the CRISPR revolution, scientists have struggled with simultaneously...

The Three Frontrunners in the CRISPR Therapy Race

CRISPR is the ultimate child star in the biomedical universe. Just six years old, the gene editing prodigy is now the subject of multiple clinical trials that aim to push the lab tech into the...

Synthetic Cell Component Expands the Code of Life in Complex Cells

Two billion years ago, on a geochemically bubbly youth Earth, a simple bacteria engulfed its neighbor. Rather than dissolving into nutrients, against all odds the eaten organism formed a symbiotic partnership with its host...

AI Performed Like a Human on a Gestalt Psychology Test

Dr. Been Kim wants to rip open the black box of deep learning. A senior researcher at Google Brain, Kim specializes in a sort of AI psychology. Like cognitive psychologists before her, she develops various...

A Spotless Mind? Precisely-Timed Anesthesia May Dim Traumatic Memories

We all have things we’d rather forget. But for over four million people in the US who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that need becomes very real. Erasing memories has always been the stuff...

Flashing Light and Sound Reduced Alzheimer’s Symptoms in Mice

The last thing Dr. Li-Huei Tsai expected to help her Alzheimer’s mice was a disco cage. Three years back, in a strobe of insight, her team decided to stick mice engineered with a genetic predisposition to...

Finally, Proof That Quantum Computing Can Boost Machine Learning

Quantum supremacy sounds like something out of a Marvel movie. But for scientists working at the forefront of quantum computing, the hope—and hype—of this fundamentally different method of processing information is very real. Thanks...

A New Ion-Drive Transistor Is Here to Interface With Your Brain

Silicon transistors and the brain don’t mix. At least not optimally. As scientists and companies are increasingly exploring ways to interface your brain with computers, fashioning new hardware that conforms to and compliments our biological...

How Three People With HIV Became Virus-Free Without HIV Drugs

You’re not entirely human. Our DNA contains roughly 100,000 pieces of viral DNA, totaling 8 percent of our entire genome. Most are ancient relics from long-forgotten invasions; but to HIV patients, the viral attacks are...

The Gene Therapy Trial Aiming to Fend Off Alzheimer’s

There’s a test for Alzheimer’s risk that genetic counselors don’t like to talk about. It’s not that they’re hiding the information—rather, it’s because Alzheimer’s has no cure. There are no consensus methods to actively prevent...

Quantum Computing, Now and in the (Not Too Distant) Future

Fifty years ago, smartphones would have been the ultimate computing wizardry. Just as classical computers were almost unimaginable to previous generations, we’re now facing the birth of an entirely new type of computation, something...

IBM’s ‘Project Debater’ AI Lost to a Human—But Put Up Quite a Fight

How can you efficiently change someone’s mind? The art of debate has always seemed like black magic to me. You’re not necessarily arguing for something you believe in—rather, you’re carefully dissecting the logic of your...

Giving Neural Nets an Innate Brain-Like Structure Could Bolster Deep Learning

How many times have you heard the following idea? Deep learning, the machine learning technique that has taken the AI world by storm, is loosely inspired by the human brain. I myself have repeated the...

New Study Suggests You Can Learn While You Sleep

As a chronic insomniac, I have a trick to lure me to sleep without drugs: podcasts. Every night before bed, I queue up a list of podcasts lengthy enough to last me the night. And...

Controversial ‘Gene Drives’ Just Worked in Mammals for the First Time

The phrase “gene drive” often sends a shudder down a scientist’s spine: one of awe, dread, and wonder. Tiny snippets of engineered DNA, gene drives are nuclear-grade powerhouses that utterly destroy the rules of inheritance....

Neuroscientists Just Found a Way to Image the Brain 1,000 Times Faster Than Ever Before

You know those stories of scientific breakthroughs, in which the lone genius scientist struggles for years until his “eureka!” moment? Yeah, that’s a lie. With the big data revolution well under way, today scientific discoveries are...

CRISPR Just Got More Powerful With an “On” Switch

For all its gene-editing prowess, mechanistically CRISPR is a bit like a power tool with a broken “off” switch. Hear me out: the entire CRISPR machinery is designed in a test tube, and once constructed...

The Top Biotech and Medicine Advances to Expect in 2019

2018 was bonkers for science. From a woman who gave birth using a transplanted uterus, to the infamous CRISPR baby scandal, to forensics adopting consumer-based genealogy test kits to track down criminals, last year was...

5 Discoveries That Made 2018 a Huge Year for Neuroscience

2018 was when neuroscience made the impossible possible. There was the dazzling array of crazy neurotech: paralyzed patients shopped and texted using an Android tablet with just their brain waves; BrainNet let three people collaboratively...

Blacklisted in China—Misbehaving Scientists Poised for “Social” Punishment

When Dr. He Jiankui announced the birth of CRISPR-edited babies last month, the world grappled with how to handle the aftermath. Should journals overlook his dangerous ethical violations and publish the results? Will he now...

5 Major Drug Breakthroughs That Happened in 2018

The pharmaceutical industry churns out dozens of new drugs and biological products every year. Most are small tweaks to something previously approved by the FDA—so called “me-too” alternatives, which are different formulations of a...

Could an Atlas of the Brain’s Genome Solve Neuropsychiatric Disorders?

Dr. Thomas Lehner was tired of his research repeatedly hitting a wall. A scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, Lehner studies the genetic underpinnings of neuropsychiatric disorders. Teasing out associated genes turned out...

First Successful Pig-to-Baboon Heart Transplant Heralds Human Trials

An oddity of an animal lived and thrived in a lab at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) of Munich in the past few years. On the surface, they looked like normal, healthy baboons. They hopped...

Disrupting Reproduction: Two New Advances in Tech-Assisted Baby-Making

Last week, news of CRISPR-engineered babies launched a firestorm of debate on the future of human reproduction: Is it safe? Is it ethical? Do we now have the ability to “play God”? But even as...

Welcome to the CRISPR Baby World—Here’s What You Should Know

Last week, the gene editing world was hit by news the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. In a video on YouTube, Dr. Jiankui He at Southern University of Science and Technology in China revealed that...

Paralyzed Patients Can Now Control Android Tablets With Their Minds

Patient T6 was barely middle-aged when she began losing muscle function. A talented musician with a love for red lipstick, T6 was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a progressive—and unstoppable—neurodegenerative disorder that eats away at...

Incepting Sight? This Brain Implant Lets Blind Patients “See” Letters

For most of us, “eyes” are synonymous with “sight”: whatever our eyes capture, we perceive. Yet under the hood, eyes are only the first step in an informational relay that transmutes photons into understanding. Light-sensitive...

Ears Grown From Apples? The Promise of Plants for Engineering Human Tissue

Inspiration for game-changing science can seemingly come from anywhere. A moldy bacterial plate gave us the first antibiotic, penicillin. Zapping yeast with a platinum electrode led to a powerful chemotherapy drug, cisplatin. For Dr. Andrew...

Hacking the Mind Just Got Easier With These New Tools

For eons, the only way to access the three-pound mushy bio-computer between our ears was to physically crack the skull, or insert a sharp object up the nose. Lucky for us, these examples of medical...

Clocking the Drugs, Drugging the Clock: The Health Impact Of Circadian Medicine

When it comes to healthcare disruption, technology is often at the center: wearables that track our biological stats, scanners that monitor our internal processes, or modulators that directly zap our brains into alternate states. But...

The Fascinating, Creepy New Research in Human Hibernation for Space Travel

No interstellar travel movie is complete without hibernators. From Prometheus to Passengers, we’ve watched protagonists awaken in hibernation pods, rebooting their fragile physiology from a prolonged state of suspended animation—a violent process that usually...

Using Big Data to Give Patients Control of Their Own Health

Big data, personalized medicine, artificial intelligence. String these three buzzphrases together, and what do you have? A system that may revolutionize the future of healthcare, by bringing sophisticated health data directly to patients for them...

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