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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


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...

Can We Trust AI Doctors? Google Health and Academics Battle It Out

Machine learning is taking medical diagnosis by storm. From eye disease, breast and other cancers, to more amorphous neurological disorders, AI is routinely matching physician performance, if not beating them outright. Yet how much can...

Scientists Found a New Way to Control the Brain With Light—No Surgery Required

If I had to place money on a neurotech that will win the Nobel Prize, it’s optogenetics. The technology uses light of different frequencies to control the brain. It’s a brilliant mind-meld of basic neurobiology...

How Machine Learning Made Hops-Free Hoppy Beer (and Other SynBio Wonders) Possible

Synthetic biology is like a reality-altering version of Minecraft. Rather than digital blocks, synthetic biology rejiggers the basic building blocks of life—DNA, proteins, biochemical circuits—to rewire living organisms or even build entirely new ones....

How a Memory Quirk of the Human Brain Can Galvanize AI

Even as toddlers we’re good at inferences. Take a two-year-old that first learns to recognize a dog and a cat at home, then a horse and a sheep in a petting zoo. The kid...

Want to Decode the Human Brain? There’s a New System for That, and It’s Pretty Wild

Even for high-tech California, the man strolling around UCLA was a curious sight. His motion capture suit, sensor-embedded gloves, and virtual reality eyewear were already enough to turn heads. But what stopped people in their...

A CRISPR Baby Future? New Report Outlines Path to Human Germline Editing

What will it take for CRISPR babies to become medically acceptable? Earlier this month, an international commission of scientists released a highly anticipated report detailing the steps needed to turn a gene-editing fiasco into...

An Army of Microscopic Robots Is Ready to Patrol Your Body

If I were to picture futuristic bots that could revolutionize both microrobotics and medicine, a Pop-Tart with four squiggly legs would not be on top of my list. I was so wrong. Last week, Drs. Marc...

Neuralink’s Wildly Anticipated New Brain Implant: the Hype vs. the Science

Neuralink’s wildly anticipated demo last Friday left me with more questions than answers. With a presentation teeming with promises and vision but scant on data, the event nevertheless lived up to its main goal...

This Is How Your Brain Responds to Social Influence

I’m a doormat when it comes to peer pressure. Jump off a 32-foot (10 meter) diving board without any experience? Sure! Propel off a cliff my first time outdoor climbing? I’ll try! Those were obviously...

We Need New, Safer Ways to Treat Pain. Could Electroacupuncture Be One?

In college, I volunteered to have a needle jabbed into the fleshy part between my thumb and forefinger in the name of acupuncture. I had bruised the area earlier in a lab experiment. I...

The Secret to a Long, Healthy Life Is in the Genes of the Oldest Humans Alive

The first time I heard nematode worms can teach us something about human longevity, I balked at the idea. How the hell can a worm with an average lifespan of only 15 days have...

These Scientists Just Completed a 3D ‘Google Earth’ for the Brain

Human brain maps are a dime a dozen these days. Maps that detail neurons in a certain region. Maps that draw out functional connections between those cells. Maps that dive deeper into gene expression....

Towards ‘Eternal Sunshine’? New Links Found Between Memory and Emotion

Nearly a decade ago, I almost drowned. As an amateur scuba diver, I recklessly joined a group of experts for a deep—much deeper than I was qualified for—dive at night. Already exhausted from swimming my...

A Newly-Discovered Tiny CRISPR Protein Packs a Giant Punch For Human Gene Editing

The CRISPR family just grew bigger. The newcomer? A tiny DNA-chomping Cas protein, tucked away inside giant viruses. That’s the recent finding from Dr. Jennifer Doudna’s lab, one of the original discoverers of CRISPR, at...

Couch Potato No More: How the Benefits of Exercise Transfer to the Brain

Brain aging is reversible. How? Why? And how much can we rejuvenate an already aged brain? Those were the one conviction and three questions that guided me throughout my post-doctoral work at the University of...

How Fake Viruses Can Help Us Make the Best Possible Vaccines

Roughly 15 years ago, in a seeming prank, a pair of smiley faces graced the cover of Nature, one of the world’s preeminent science journals. Flash forward to today, and those smiley faces may...

A Highway to Smell: How Scientists Used Light to Incept Smell in Mice

I was on a panel a few weeks ago and realized I forgot to turn off the oven. Utterly mortified, I told my Zoom attendees that I had to save my lasagna that was...

Scientists Used Dopamine to Seamlessly Merge Artificial and Biological Neurons

In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits. It sounds crazy, but a new...

Amazingly Detailed Map Reveals How the Brain Changes With Aging

If a brain is our Earth, then we, as inhabitants, are individual brain cells. Just as our human relationships and connections can nudge, push, or dramatically shift societal values and consequences, the connections between neurons...

Scientists 3D Printed Ears Inside Living Mice Using Light

Tissue engineering just got wilder and weirder. Using nothing but light and bioink, scientists were able to directly print a human ear-like structure under the skin of mice. The team used a healthy ear as...

How a Crowdsourcing Challenge Turbocharged Brain Research During Lockdown

“I had a dream my paintbrush split while I was picking up brain slices. Nightmare scenario, right? Then I woke up and thought: I really miss the lab,” a neuroscientist friend of mine recently...

How Scientists Influenced Monkeys’ Decisions Using Ultrasound in Their Brains

A few years ago, in a pitch black room at Stanford University, a monkey sat silently in his custom-made chair, utterly bewildered. It wasn’t because of the head brace, which held his head completely still....

Scientists Are Cloning the Coronavirus Like Crazy. Here’s Why—and the Risks

Most biomedical researchers are busy finding ways to squash the new coronavirus. Meanwhile, synthetic biologists are busy cloning it in droves. In late February a team from the University of Bern, led by Dr. Volker...

To Find a Coronavirus Vaccine Faster, Should We Deliberately Infect Thousands of People?

“First, do no harm” is a core principle for all physicians. Yet with the new coronavirus wreaking havoc across the globe, the medical community is now asking: What if “first, do harm” is the...

Biological to Artificial and Back: How a Core AI Algorithm May Work in the Brain

Blame is the main game when it comes to learning. I know that sounds bizarre, but hear me out. Neural circuits of thousands, if not more, neurons control every single one of your thoughts, reasonings,...

How Will Coronavirus End? It Depends on Our Immunity. Three Possible Outcomes

We’re all so ready for this to be over. With the curve finally flattening in the US, the ramping up of anti-viral and vaccine trials against SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes Covid-19—and the launch of antibody...

Contact Tracing Is the Next Step in the Covid-19 Battle—But How Will It Work in Western Countries?

One death in Steven Soderbergh’s terrifyingly prescient masterpiece, Contagion, stayed with me: Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears, an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer who chased down people with a terrifying viral infection in an effort...

Coronavirus Drug Development in 5 (Turbo-Charged) Steps

One of the scariest things about the new coronavirus is that there aren’t any validated treatments. Plenty of ideas are in the works: a decades-long anti-malaria pill, blood components from people who’ve recovered, broad...

Blood Is the Next Critical Tool In the Coronavirus Fight. Here’s Why

I’ve been sick for the past week. The symptoms match up with coronavirus infection. But like many people in the US, because they’re relatively mild I’m unable to get a test. Testing rates have finally...

Existing Drugs May Work Against Covid-19. AI Is Screening Thousands to Find Out

You’ve heard of chloroquine by now. Originally developed by German scientists in the 1930s, the anti-malaria drug is based on a natural compound present in the bark of certain South African trees. For nearly...

A Coronavirus Vaccine Could Be the First That Outwits Nature

It’s been grim news all around for COVID-19. Italy’s skyrocketing death toll has now risen above China’s. Countries are shutting borders. Massive cities in the US have ordered “shelter-in-place” to reduce viral transmission, severely...

DeepMind’s Protein Folding AI Is Going After Coronavirus

In late December last year, Dr. Li Wenliang began warning officials about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, but was silenced by the police before tragically succumbing to the disease two months later. Meanwhile,...

Scientists Linked Artificial and Biological Neurons in a Network—and Amazingly, It Worked

Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls...

Gene Therapy Is Successfully Treating a Common Form of Inherited Blindness

K.L. always knew he might be completely blind before reaching adulthood. Even as a child he realized something was wrong with his eyes. Although he could see enough to navigate the world in daytime, as...

How to Battle an Epidemic? Digitize Its DNA and Share It With the World

A nightmarish scene was burnt into my memory nearly two decades ago: Changainjie, Beijing’s normally chaotic “fifth avenue,” desolate without a sign of life. Schools shut, subways empty, people terrified to leave their homes....

Scientists Jump-Started Consciousness in Monkeys by Pinpointing This Brain Region

In 1991, a devastating car crash left 32-year-old Munira Abdulla with severe brain injuries and in a deep coma. Doctors thought she had no chance of recovery. Yet her story blew up when, miraculously,...

Neuromodulation Is the Secret Sauce for This Adaptive, Fast-Learning AI

As obstinate and frustrating as we are sometimes, humans in general are pretty flexible when it comes to learning—especially compared to AI. Our ability to adapt is deeply rooted within our brain’s chemical base code....

Verily’s Bold New Project Aims to Predict Depression Using Your Phone

Depression is a shifting, amorphous beast that silently haunts millions. It’s also difficult to pinpoint. Psychiatry has formulated well-tested questionnaires to diagnose depression. But these tests require patients to reach out and only provide snapshots...

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