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Shelly Fan

Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, where she studies ways to make old brains young again. In addition to research, she's also an avid science writer with an insatiable obsession with biotech, AI and all things neuro. She spends her spare time kayaking, bike camping and getting lost in the woods.

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From This Author


De-Extinction Is Now a Thing—Starting With Passenger Pigeons

When Martha the passenger pigeon died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo, it marked the end of an era. Once the dominant species in eastern North America, passenger pigeons roamed the forests in giant flocks...

Healthy Mice Born From Same-Sex Parents For the First Time

When scientists made immature human egg cells from donated blood, some speculated that human reproduction was on the verge of a massive disruption. The future is now. Last week, a team from China completely overhauled natural...

How BrainNet Enabled 3 People to Directly Transmit Thoughts

For a remarkably social species, we’re not particularly effective communicators. Finding the right words to clearly, efficient transmit our thoughts to another consciousness—even something as simple as driving directions—can be a challenge, especially in-the-moment and...

Human Immature Eggs Made From Blood Cells for the First Time

We all know how babies are made: sperm meets egg, molecular magic happens, and an entire human comes to life from a single cell. But is that the only way? For a decade, scientists have been...

DeepMind’s New Research on Linking Memories, and How It Applies to AI

There’s a cognitive quirk humans have that seems deceptively elementary. For example: every morning, you see a man in his 30s walking a boisterous collie. Then one day, a white-haired lady with striking resemblance...

Thinking Like a Human: What It Means to Give AI a Theory of Mind

Last month, a team of self-taught AI gamers lost spectacularly against human professionals in a highly-anticipated galactic melee. Taking place as part of the International Dota 2 Championships in Vancouver, Canada, the game showed...

New Study Is the Most Successful Attempt to Gene Edit Human Embryos So Far

In the quest for CRISPR supremacy, China just won another first. Last week, a team used CRISPR-Cas9 to correct a single mistaken DNA letter in over a dozen human embryos—and succeeded 16 out of...

Landmark FDA Approval Brings Powerful Gene Silencing Method to Market

Earlier this month, the FDA approved an entirely new family of drugs, one so powerful that it could put CRISPR-based gene therapy to shame. Backed by two decades of research and a Nobel Prize,...

Amazing New Brain Map of Every Synapse Points to the Roots of Thinking

Imagine a map of every single star in an entire galaxy. A map so detailed that it lays out what each star looks like, what they’re made of, and how each star is connected...

CAR-T May Be a Silver Bullet Against Cancer—and Here’s What Else It Can Do

CAR-T is the super-soldier serum of cell therapy: you pluck out an immune cell soldier, inject it with a dose of new genes, and send the enhanced cell back into the host body—bam! Suddenly...

This Mind-Controlled Robotic Limb Lets You Multitask With Three Arms

If you’ve ever juggled a situation where two arms aren’t enough, you’re in luck! Thanks to a new study published in Science Robotics, humans have the ability to mind-control a robotic arm on a...

DNA Computing Gets a Boost With This Machine Learning Hack

As the master code of life, DNA can do a lot of things. Inheritance. Gene therapy. Wipe out an entire species. Solve logic problems. Recognize your sloppy handwriting. Wait, What? In a brilliant study published in...

This Drug Combo Extends Lifespan and Healthspan in Mice by Killing ‘Zombie’ Cells

Aging may seem like the most natural—and inevitable—thing in life. Yet according to a new study in Nature Medicine, rejuvenating an aging body may be as easy as kitchen renovations. Simply swap drill and...

New DNA Synthesis Method Could Soon Build a Genome in a Day

Synthetic biologists are the computer programmers of biology. Their code? DNA. The whole enterprise sounds fantastical: you insert new snippets of DNA code—in the form of a chain of A, T, C, G letters—into an...

Have We Reached the Limit of Human Longevity? New Study Says No

In 1997, when Jeannne Loise Calment died at the age of 122, she was the longest-living human on record. But she won’t always be. According to a new study published last week in Science, humans are...

Transdifferentiation Can Create An Endless Supply of Brain Cells—And Fast

Cellular reprogramming is like the fairytale of spinning straw into gold: you take an abundant, mundane cell type, dose it with a cocktail of chemicals, and voilà—now you have an unlimited supply of therapeutic...

How DeepMind’s Latest AI Hints at Machines That Think More Like Us

I once asked a deep learning researcher what he’d like for Christmas. His answer? “More labeled datasets.” Nerd jokes aside, the lack of so-called “labeled” training data in deep learning is a real problem. Deep learning...

Pioneering Stem Cell Trial Seeks to Cure Babies Before Birth

Even before she was born, Elianna Constantino had already cheated death. Elianna has a rare inherited blood disorder called alpha thalassemia major, which prevents her red blood cells from forming properly. The disease, which has...

Robots Will Be Able to Feel Touch With This Artificial Nerve

When the disembodied cockroach leg twitched, Yeongin Kim knew he had finally made it. A graduate student at Stanford, Kim had been working with an international team of neuroengineers on a crazy project: an artificial...

A Quarter Million Gamers Helped Build This Incredibly Detailed Map of the Brain

EyeWire, neuroscience’s most audacious experiment, just opened up a digital museum. Constructed with the help of a quarter million gamers, EyeWire Museum is one-of-a-kind: the 3D interactive playground showcases neurons in a mouse’s retina in...

Living Neanderthal ‘Mini-Brains’ May Reveal What Makes Our Brains Special

He isolated DNA from Egyptian mummies. He discovered the Denisovans, an extinct ancient human species, by sequencing DNA from a tiny bone fragment. He led a massive study that reconstructed the Neanderthal genome—and found...

Scientists Kick Off Synthetic Biology Project to Make Virus-Resistant Super Cells

Recently, roughly 200 eminent scientists assembled in Boston. Their agenda? Creating “superhero” human cells impervious to all viral attacks and possibly other killers—radiation, freezing, aging, or even cancer. The trick isn’t super-soldier serum. Instead, the...

Holograms Can Now Program Brain Activity—Are Fake Experiences Next?

Optogenetics, neuroscience’s hottest mind-control tool, just got a major update. Projecting 3D-light holograms—yes, holograms!—directly onto a mouse’s cortex, engineers at UC Berkeley instantaneously gained control of dozens of neurons at once. That’s not the impressive part....

CRISPR-on-a-Chip For Diagnosing Cancer May Soon Be a Thing

Oh CRISPR, how you’ve grown. From an obscure part of the bacterial immune defense system, you’re now on track to cure genetic diseases, thwart superbugs, boost global food production, and wipe out disease-carrying pests. And...

Mini-Brains Just Grew Their Own Blood Vessels—Here’s Why That’s Great News

If you ever put a brain through a Picasso filter, you’d probably get something close to a brain ball. When brain balls first hit the neuroscience scene in 2013, they were just a curious oddity....

This Memory Prosthesis Boosts Recall in Humans by Roughly 40 Percent

This one’s for the books: in a jaw-dropping study, a team just turned the human brain from a read-only memory device to a rewritable one. "What?" you might ask. Of course the brain is rewritable....

New Bionic Arm Blurs Line Between Self and Machine for Wearers

At 29 years old, Canadian firefighter Rob Anderson lost his left arm and left leg to a harrowing helicopter crash into the side of a mountain. Although fitted with “top of the line” prosthetics...

The Startup That Has to Kill You to Preserve Your Brain—Here’s the Science Behind the Buzz

Here’s something you don’t hear every day: for $10,000, an MIT-backed startup will preserve your brain right down to the synapse level. Within this century, the company pitched, future neuroscientists will extract the information...

Powerful New Algorithm Is a Big Step Towards Whole-Brain Simulation

The renowned physicist Dr. Richard Feynman once said: “What I cannot create, I do not understand. Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.” An increasingly influential subfield of neuroscience has taken Feynman’s...

In Landmark Study, Human Stem Cells Restore Monkeys’ Movement After Spinal Cord Injury

Stem cell therapy is highly attractive in its intuitive simplicity: you clean out injured cells, plop down a gang of healthy replacements, sit back, and wait for the body to heal itself. For spinal cord...

This Sensor Lets Scientists See Neuron-Level Brain Activity in Real Time

Picture this: you’re at a boisterous party, trying to listen in on a group conversation. People are talking over each other and going a mile a minute, but you can only pick up snippets...

Not Just Gene Editing—CRISPR Toolkit Expands With Trio of New Tricks

CRISPR, the superhero of gene editing, just got a little more super. In a trio of studies released last week in Science, leading CRISPR labs around the world unveiled some ultra-creative additions to the technique,...

Cancer Vaccines May Overhaul Cancer Therapy in the Next Decade

The term “silver bullet” gets tossed around a lot, but cancer vaccines are just that. Unlike the flu vaccines that we’re familiar with, cancer vaccines are slightly different in that they don’t just seek...

We Read This 800-Page Report on the State of Longevity Research So You Don’t Have To

The longevity field is bustling but still fragmented, and the “silver tsunami” is coming. That is the takeaway of The Science of Longevity, the behemoth first volume of a four-part series offering a bird’s-eye view...

Brain-Like Chips Now Beat the Human Brain in Speed and Efficiency

Move over, deep learning. Neuromorphic computing—the next big thing in artificial intelligence—is on fire. Just last week, two studies individually unveiled computer chips modeled after information processing in the human brain. The first, published in Nature...

Enzyme Designed Entirely From Scratch Opens a World of Biological Possibility

Ann Donnelly was utterly confused the first time she examined her protein. On all counts, it behaved like an enzyme—a protein catalyst that speeds up biological reactions in cells. One could argue that enzymes,...

Here’s the Tech That Could One Day Track, Boost, or Erase Human Memory

Human memories are notoriously fallible. We forget things, misremember things, and often don’t even know what we no longer know. What if there was a way to flip through the catalog of our precious memories...

Why Gene Silencing Could Launch a New Class of Blockbuster Drugs

Long before CRISPR, there was gene silencing. Ever since the Human Genome Project transcribed our genetic bible in 1997, scientists have dreamt of curing inherited diseases at the source. The first audacious idea? Shoot the...

Gene Therapy Had a Breakthrough 2017—2018 May Be Even Better

Gene therapy had a hell of a 2017. After decades of promises but failed deliveries, last year saw the field hitting a series of astonishing home runs. The concept of gene therapy is elegant: like...

Do Our Brains Use Deep Learning to Make Sense of the World?

The first time Dr. Blake Richards heard about deep learning, he was convinced that he wasn’t just looking at a technique that would revolutionize artificial intelligence. He also knew he was looking at something...

These Creepy Mini-Brains May Finally Crack Deadly Brain Cancer

Brain organoids look like something between a malformed human brain and a character from Monsters, Inc. But don’t be fooled by their grotesque appearance. Ever since their introduction three years ago, brain organoids—charmingly dubbed “mini-brains”...

Neuroscience Could Bring Us Eternal Bliss, But Is That a Good Thing?

What if the secret to eternal happiness is a brain implant? If you’re thinking that sounds like the premise of a Black Mirror episode, you’re not alone. Yet at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference...

How Bursts of Ultrasound Can Be Used to Flip Switches in the Brain

It sounds like the beginning of a Stephen King novel: a protagonist bolts up in bed, his unsuspecting brain picking up ultrasound waves crashing in the air. These waves have the power to fry...

Thought-Controlled Prosthetic Hand Restores 100 Realistic Touch Sensations

When Keven Walgamott reached out and grasped his wife’s hand, his face broke into an enormous smile. For the first time in 14 years, he could feel her soft fingers, pressing firmly into his prosthetic...

CRISPR Can Now Hitch a Ride on Nanoparticles to Battle Disease

It started like any other day. Dr. Hao Yin walked into the lab at MIT, ready to check on his transgenic mice. He had no idea he was about to make history. Yin’s mice harbored...

A ‘Google Maps’ for the Mouse Brain Details Neurons Like Never Before

Ask any neuroscientist to draw you a neuron, and it’ll probably look something like a star with two tails: one stubby with extensive tree-like branches, the other willowy, lengthy and dotted with spindly spikes. While...

Eternal Life Is Mathematically Impossible, Says New Aging Theory

Back in 2016, when the FDA green lighted metformin—a drug that’s shown to boost lifespan by up to 40 percent in animal models—for human trials, it signaled the first spark of a paradigm shift...

Here’s How to Get to Conscious Machines, Neuroscientists Say

“We cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” – Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Unlike the director leads you to believe, the protagonist of...

This ‘Living Touch Screen’ Is Made out of Bacteria and Gold

When it comes to touch screen devices, “grow” isn’t the first verb that comes to mind. After all, smartphones and their silicon-based inorganic brethren are built. Growing, in contrast, is a superpower that graces...

This Radical New Method Regenerates Failing Lungs With Blood Vessels Intact

Save for the occasional burning pain that accompanies a run, most people don't pay much attention to the two-leafed organ puffing away in our chests. But lungs are feats of engineering wonder: with over 40...

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