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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


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...

FDA Breaks New Ground With First Approved Gene Therapy for Cancer

When oncologist Dr. Carl June heard the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to bring the first gene therapy to market in the US, he pinched himself, hard. “It was so improbable that this would ever...

Antennas Made 100 Times Smaller to Hook Up Tiny Wearables and Implants

On a gray, drizzling winter day in 1896, within the vine-carpeted walls of Toynbee Hall, the London press witnessed what seemed like an acoustic miracle. Spread out on a table was a curious modular device....

Is This the Real Thing? How the Brain Separates Fantasy From Reality

When the moon finally eclipsed the sun’s dazzling rays, I stared at the black orb in the sky with utter disbelief. I was one among the tens of thousands camped out amongst the Painted Hills...

This Chip Uses Electricity to Reprogram Cells for Healing

It sounds like science fiction: with a light zap of electricity, a tiny stamp-like device transforms your skin cells into reservoirs of blood vessels or brain cells, ready to heal you from within. Recently, a...

Gene Editing in Human Embryos Leaps Forward—Here’s the Science

Imagine walking down the street with a ticking time bomb in your chest, never knowing when your heart may explode. Or going through five decades of life, having kids, and always wondering when your mind...

Biocomputers Made From Cells Can Now Handle More Complex Logic

When it comes to biomolecules, RNA doesn’t get a lot of love. Maybe you haven’t even heard of the silent workhorse. RNA is the cell’s de facto translator: like a game of telephone, RNA takes...

Breakthrough Stem Cell Study Offers New Clues to Reversing Aging

What causes the body to age? The Greek Philosopher Aristotle thought it was the heart—a “hot, dry” organ at the seat of intelligence, motion and sensation. Fast-forward a few centuries, and the brain has overthrown the...

Why Neuroscience Is the Key to Innovation in AI

The future of AI lies in neuroscience. So says Google DeepMind’s founder Demis Hassabis in a review paper published last week in the prestigious journal Neuron. Hassabis is no stranger to both fields. Armed with a...

Machine Reasoning Gets a Boost With This Simple New Algorithm

There’s a classic scene in almost every police procedural: a weathered detective stands staring at a collection of photos pinned to a wall. Thin, red yarn traces the connections between the different players. Something’s...

‘Biological Teleportation’ Edges Closer With Craig Venter’s Digital-to-Biological Converter

The year is 2030. In a high-security containment lab, scientists gathered around a towering machine, eagerly awaiting the first look at a newly discovered bacterium on Mars. With a series of beeps, the machine—a digital-to-biological...

Is There a Multidimensional Mathematical World Hidden in the Brain’s Computation?

Two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks looked into the night sky and saw geometric shapes emerge among the stars: a hunter, a lion, a water vase. In a way, they used these constellations to...

Forget Police Sketches: Researchers Perfectly Reconstruct Faces by Reading Brainwaves

Picture this: you’re sitting in a police interrogation room, struggling to describe the face of a criminal to a sketch artist. You pause, wrinkling your brow, trying to remember the distance between his eyes...

Here Are the Microsurgeons That Will Soon Roam Our Bodies

On a crisp fall evening in 2006, Dr. Sylvain Martel held his breath as a technician slipped an anesthetized pig into a whirling fMRI machine. His eyes stared intently at a computer screen, which...

Limitless Lab-Grown Blood Is ‘Tantalizingly Close’ After 20 Years

Blood stem cells are things of wonder: hidden inside each single cell is the power to reconstitute an entire blood system, like a sort of biological big bang. Yet with great power comes greater vulnerability....

How to Build a Mind? This Theory May Guide Us Toward an Answer

How do intelligent minds learn? Consider a toddler navigating her day, bombarded by a kaleidoscope of experiences. How does her mind discover what’s normal happenstance and begin building a model of the world? How does...

New AI Mimics Any Voice in a Matter of Minutes

The story starts out like a bad joke: Obama, Clinton and Trump walk into a bar, where they applauded a new startup based in Montreal, Canada called Lyrebird. Skeptical? Here’s a recording. https://soundcloud.com/user-535691776/dialog Sound clip credit: Lyrebird If...

Bizarre Mini Brains Offer a Fascinating New Look at the Brain

Brain balls sound like something straight out of a Tim Burton movie: starting as stem cells harvested from patients, they eventually develop into masses of living neurons, jumbled together in misshapen blobs. Just like the...

These Cells Are Engineered to Be Controlled by a Smartphone

To Dr. Mark Gomelsky, a professor at the University of Wyoming, genetically engineered therapeutic cells are like troops on a mission. The first act is training. Using genetic editing tools such as CRISPR, scientists can...

Brain Mapping Tech Inflates Tissue 20x to Reveal Remarkable Detail

Like the fiber optic cables that connect landline phones, the long branches of brain cells transmit information from one neuron to the next. Unlike phone cables that can only passively carry electrical signals, however, neuronal...

CRISPR Pill May Be Key in Fight Against Antibiotic Resistance

Even since Alexander Fleming stumbled across penicillin—the first antibiotic drug—scientists knew our fight with evolution was on. Most antibiotics work by blocking biological processes that allow bacteria to thrive and multiply. With prolonged, low-dosage use,...

Neuroscientists Can Now Read Your Dreams With a Simple Brain Scan

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge from a sleeping brain has long baffled scientists and philosophers alike. For...

Scientists Hacked a Cell’s DNA and Made a Biocomputer Out of It

Our brains are often compared to computers, but in truth, the billions of cells in our bodies may be a better analogy. The squishy sacks of goop may seem a far cry from rigid...

Old Mice Made Young Again With New Anti-Aging Drug

There’s something eerily dystopian about the lives of cells. Like the young heroes in popular teen novels, cells are born into stringent organ “societies,” destined to perform specific roles preordained by their DNA expression. Like...

Google Chases General Intelligence With New AI That Has a Memory

For a mind to be capable of tackling anything, it has to have a memory. Humans are exceptionally good at transferring old skills to new problems. Machines, despite all their recent wins against humans, aren’t....

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