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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


The Brain Predicts Reward Like an AI, Says New DeepMind Research

The idea of reinforcement learning—or learning based on reward—has been around for so long it’s easy to forget we don’t really know how it works. If DeepMind’s new bombshell paper in Nature is any indication,...

Scientists Discovered ‘Mini-Computers’ in Human Neurons—and That’s Great News for AI

With just their input cables, human neurons can perform difficult logic calculations previously only seen in entire neural networks. To restate: human neurons are far more powerful devices than originally thought. And if deep...

The Top Biotech Trends We’ll Be Watching in 2020

Last year left us with this piece of bombshell news: He Jiankui, the mastermind behind the CRISPR babies scandal, has been sentenced to three years in prison for violating Chinese laws on “scientific research...

These Breakthroughs Made the 2010s the Decade of the Brain

I rarely use the words transformative or breakthrough for neuroscience findings. The brain is complex, noisy, chaotic, and often unpredictable. One intriguing result under one condition may soon fail for a majority of others....

This Year’s 4 Most Mind-Boggling Stories About the Brain

2019 was nuts for neuroscience. I said this last year too, but that’s the nature of accelerating technologies: the advances just keep coming. There’re the theoretical showdowns: a mano a mano battle of where consciousness...

Gene Therapy for Sickle-Cell Anemia Looks Promising—but It’s Riddled With Controversy

Gene therapy is fighting to enter mainstream medicine. With sickle cell disease, the fight is heating up. Roughly two years ago, the FDA made the historic decision to approve the first gene therapy in the...

How Far Are We from (Accurately and Safely) Editing Human Embryos?

We can already edit genes in human embryos. We can even do it in a way to pass the edits down generations, fundamentally changing a family’s genetic makeup. Doing it well, however, is far more...

How a New Smart Skin Patch Uses Vibrations to Track Your Health

Wearables are so common these days we rarely give them second thought. Yet packed into FitBits and Apple Watches are multiple tiny, sensitive sensors that monitor your steps, heart rate, sleep and—with your input—even...

Designer Babies? Simulation Shows They Won’t Happen Anytime Soon

Roughly a year ago, the creation of CRISPRed twins reignited fierce debate and trepidation about our oncoming era of designer babies. The experiment, designed to protect the babies against HIV, failed miserably. But He...

How Scientists Grew Perfect New Lungs in Mouse Embryos

Unless you or a loved one are a smoker, lung health probably never got on your radar. But the recent spike in deadly vaping-related lung diseases—some requiring lung transplants—make it clear: as a society,...

How Much Can We Delay Aging? A Gene Therapy Trial Is About to Find Out

Aging is reversible. It’s still a somewhat controversial idea in humans. Yet recent attempts at delaying—or even reversing—diseases that pop up with age in animals clearly show that health doesn’t necessarily decline with age. The...

Everything You Need to Know About Superstar CRISPR Prime Editing

All right, let’s do this one last time. My name is CRISPR. I was made from a bacterial defense system, and for years I’ve been the one and only gene editing wunderkind. I’m pretty...

The Origin of Consciousness in the Brain Is About to Be Tested

Here’s something you don’t hear every day: two theories of consciousness are about to face off in the scientific fight of the century. Backed by top neuroscientist theorists of today, including Christof Koch, head of...

CRISPR Just Created a Hornless Bull, and It’s a Step Forward for Gene-Edited Food

There’s a practice in farming not often talked about. To prevent accidental harm to human handlers and other cattle, bulls generally have their horn-producing cells surgically removed before the horns permanently attach to their...

This Strange Rule Is What Makes the Human Brain So Powerful

Run a supercomputer every second of every day, and eventually its storage will fill up, its speed decrease, and its components burn out. Yet our brains run with astonishing efficacy nearly every moment of our...

Scientists Found New Antibiotic Molecules—Right In the Human Microbiome

The human microbiome is the dark matter of biology: we know it’s there and critically balances health from disease. We can broadly examine microbe members with advanced DNA sequencing methods and infer their species...

How Old Is Your Brain? This AI Can Tell You

Delaying “brain age” may sound like the latest quick-fix gimmick on a late-night infomercial, but the science underlying the concept is very real. Rather than reflecting the average functional state of your chronological age, brain...

Deep Learning Networks Can’t Generalize—But They’re Learning From the Brain

“Bias” in AI is often treated as a dirty word. But to Dr. Andreas Tolias at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, bias may also be the solution to smarter, more human-like...

DNA Nanomachines Are Opening Medicine to the World of Physics

When I imagine the inner workings of a robot, I think hard, cold mechanics running on physics: shafts, wheels, gears. Human bodies, in contrast, are more of a contained molecular soup operating on the...

Moore’s Law Is Dying. This Brain-Inspired Analogue Chip Is a Glimpse of What’s Next

“Dark silicon” sounds like a magical artifact out of a fantasy novel. In reality, it’s one branch of a three-headed beast that foretells the end of advances in computation. Ok—that might be too dramatic. But...

This Light-based Nervous System Helps Robots ‘Feel’

Last night, way past midnight, I stumbled onto my porch blindly grasping for my keys after a hellish day of international travel. Lights were low, I was half-asleep, yet my hand grabbed the keychain,...

How a Centuries-Old Sculpting Method Is Helping 3D Print Organs With Blood Vessels

Blood vessels are the lifeline of any organ. The dense web of channels, spread across tissues like a spider web, allow oxygen and nutrients to reach the deepest cores of our hearts, brains, and lungs....

The First Evidence That Drugs Could Turn Back the Clock on Our Biological Age

After decades of research, here it is: the first promising evidence in humans, albeit imperfect and early, that a cocktail of three drugs is enough to reverse the epigenetic clock—a measure of someone’s biological...

New Hybrid Brain Map Reveals How Neurons Connect

Projects that map the billions of connections within entire brains have always had a tinge of grandiosity. Yet to connectomists, these projects aren’t just the key to cracking the brain’s ultimate mysteries. Understanding how...

What Does Ethical AI Look Like? Here’s What the New Global Consensus Says

Elon Musk usually isn’t one for advocating regulation and oversight. But when it comes to AI, he doesn’t mince words. AI is humanity’s “biggest existential threat,” he once proclaimed to some controversy. While that statement...

Lab-Grown Minibrains Show Activity Similar to Babies’ Brains

Neurons are a collective bunch. Although each neuron receives, processes, and passes on information individually, the electrical spikes only make sense when melded together in waves of oscillating activity. Like an orchestra, the notes...

Cellular Computers Get a Boost With CRISPR

Cancer’s impenetrable secrets partly rely on its mysterious molecular history. As cells turn to the dark side, a whirlwind of DNA changes gradually accumulate. Like flipping multiple interlinked light switches, the cell gradually changes its...

A Brief Tour Through the Wild West of Neural Interfaces

To most of us, zapping neurons with electricity to artificially “incept” memories, sensation, and movement still sounds crazy. But in some brain labs, that technology is beginning to feel old school. As a new...

Inside the Story of LightSail 2, a Solar Sail to the Stars

Right now, there’s a piece of reflective fabric about the size of a boxing ring orbiting the Earth. On the surface, it looks like an emergency blanket stretched tight by two tent poles. But...

How Much Is AI Really Moving the Needle on Health?

When it comes to health and wellness, most people have a similar goal: we want to live a healthier, longer, and happier life. Thanks to antibiotics, vaccines, medical imaging, and other technological breakthroughs, we’ve...

The Time for AI Is Now. Here’s Why

You hear a lot these days about the sheer transformative power of AI. There’s pure intelligence: DeepMind’s algorithms readily beat humans at Go and StarCraft, and DeepStack triumphs over humans at no-limit hold’em poker. Often,...

Harvard’s Smart Exo-Shorts Talk to the Cloud to Help You Walk and Run

Exosuits don’t generally scream “fashionable” or “svelte.” Take the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that allowed a paraplegic man to kick off the World Cup back in 2014. Is it cool? Hell yeah. Is it practical?...

This CAR-T Tag-Team Could Wipe Out HIV for Good

CAR-T may have made its name as the cancer breakthrough of this century, but its roots dig far back to one of humanity’s other terrifying medical nemeses: HIV. This week, Lengtigen, a biotech company based...

Wait, What? The First Human-Monkey Hybrid Embryo Was Just Created in China

Last week, news broke that a prominent stem cell researcher is making human-monkey chimeras in a secretive lab in China. The story, first reported by the Spanish newspaper El País, has all the ingredients of...

Three Invaluable Ways AI and Neuroscience Are Driving Each Other Forward

DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis once pointed to the human brain as a paramount inspiration for building AI with human-like intelligence. He’s not the only one. The meteoric success of deep learning showcases how insights from...

Watch China’s New Hybrid AI Chip Power an Autonomous Bike

When I lived in Beijing back in the 90s, a man walking his bike was nothing to look at. But today, I did a serious double-take at a video of a bike walking his...

Moving Beyond Mind-Controlled Limbs to Prosthetics That Can Actually ‘Feel’

Brain-machine interface enthusiasts often gush about “closing the loop.” It’s for good reason. On the implant level, it means engineering smarter probes that only activate when they detect faulty electrical signals in brain circuits....

Scientists Just Released a New Playbook for Engineering Longer, Healthier Lives

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment anti-aging research morphed from quackery to an established science. Some say it’s 1939, when an experiment that restricted calories in rodents bizarrely increased their lifespan. Others argue...

Editing RNA Expands CRISPR’s Use Far Beyond Genetic Diseases

CRISPR advances have been coming so frequently that it’s hard to keep track. In just a few years, it’s evolved from a nifty genome word editor to a full-on biological Swiss army knife. There’s the...

How Scientists Used Light to Incept Sensations and Memories in Mice

Last week, Elon Musk’s mysterious Neuralink finally revealed their master plan after two years of silence: to build high bandwidth, immune resistant, thread-like brain-machine interfaces that can be robotically implanted into the brain. In theory,...

The First Complete Brain Wiring Diagram of Any Species Is Here

For a humble, microscopic worm with only 302 neurons, C. elegans has had a lot of firsts. It was the first multicellular animal to have its whole genome sequenced. It was also the spark...

How Will We Store Three Septillion Bits of Data? Your Metabolome May Have the Answer

Thanks to the cloud, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever run out of data storage. But by 2040, we may be swarmed by three septillion bits of data, and Earth will run out...

The Pentagon’s New Laser-Based Tool Uses Your Heartbeat to Track You

The government’s hefty arsenal of surveillance tools just welcomed a powerful new member. Rather than monitoring an external device—a bug or a smartphone—or even the exterior features of your face, the new tech aims...

Cancer-Killing Living Drug Is Made Safer With a Simple Off Switch

When it comes to battling cancer, our most powerful weapon is also our most dangerous. You’ve heard of CAR-T: the cellular immunotherapy extracts a patient’s own immune cells, amps up their tumor-hunting prowess using gene...

Could Lab-Grown Brains Develop Consciousness?

There’s a very un-sexy view of consciousness: our rich, meaningful inner experience of self and other is nothing but electrical and chemical chattering inside our brains. If you, like many scientists, subscribe to this theory,...

This Radical New DNA Microscope Reimagines the Cellular World

It’s not every day that something from the 17th century gets radically reinvented. But this month, a team from the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard took aim at one of the most iconic pieces...

Scientists Can Now Clone Brain Organoids. Here’s Why That Matters

An army of free-floating minibrain clones are heading your way! No, that’s not the premise of a classic sci-fi brain-in-jars blockbuster. Rather, a team at Harvard has figured out a way to “clone” brain organoids,...

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...

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