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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


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....

Is the Brain More Powerful Than We Thought? Here Comes the Science

If you’ve ever played around with an old music amplifier, you probably know what a firing neuron sounds like. A sudden burst of static? Check. A rapid string of pops, like hundreds of bursting balloons?...

New Artificial Synapse Bridges the Gap to Brain-Like Computers

From AlphaGo’s historic victory against world champion Lee Sedol to DeepStack’s sweeping win against professional poker players, artificial intelligence is clearly on a roll. Part of the momentum comes from breakthroughs in artificial neural networks,...

Are These Giant Neurons the Seat Of Consciousness in the Brain?

The towering trees with their sprawling branches in the redwood forests have always reminded me of neurons in the brain. Like trees, each neuron extends out tortuous, delicate branches in a quest to make contact...

Natural Selection Is About to Be Overpowered by the First-Ever Mammalian Gene Drive

The year is 2050. The place, New Zealand. Technological advances have dramatically changed the lives of the island’s human inhabitants, but on first blush, its animals remain untouched. Except for one curious thing: all invasive...

Does Zapping Your Brain Actually Help You Learn Faster?

A cognitive neuroscientist and his team at HRL Laboratories in Malibu, California, seem to have achieved the impossible. According to a press release, the team “measured the brain activity patterns of six commercial and military...

New Tech Makes Brain Implants Safer and Super Precise

When Jan Scheuermann volunteered for an experimental brain implant, she had no idea she was making neuroscience history. Scheuermann, 54 at the time of surgery, had been paralyzed for 14 years due to a neurological...

This One-Cent Lab-on-a-Chip Can Diagnose Cancer and Infections

  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. —Arthur C Clarke Medical diagnostics often feels like magic to me. With just a few drops of blood, doctors can quickly decipher a patient’s general health status—are biomarker...

Families Finally Hear From Completely Paralyzed Patients Via New Mind-Reading Device

Wendy was barely 20 years old when she received a devastating diagnosis: juvenile amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an aggressive neurodegenerative disorder that destroys motor neurons in the brain and the spinal cord.* Within half a...

Robot Cars Can Teach Themselves How to Drive in Virtual Worlds

Over the holidays, I went for a drive with a Tesla. With, not in, because the car was doing the driving. Hearing about autonomous vehicles is one thing; experiencing it was something entirely different. When...

Young Blood Offered as Anti-Aging Therapy — But Is It Ready?

When 68-year-old Mark Thompson* walked into a private clinic on the outskirts of Monterey, California, $8,000 in hand, he had one hope in mind: to leave the clinic feeling physically and mentally back in...

How to Train AI to Do Everything in the Digital Universe

To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely. –Maria Montessori There’s a kindergarten I walk past on the way to work, and I can’t help but...

This One Equation May Be the Root of Intelligence

How does intelligence work? According to Dr. Joe Tsien, a leading neuroscientist at Augusta University in Georgia, the key lies in one simple, unassuming equation: N = 2i–1. At its core, Tsien’s theory of connectivity describes how...

Is Radical Life Extension Good for Society?

It’s no longer a radical question. The aging literature is replete with treatments that could prolong lifespan by 20-40%, at least in lab animals. Interventions such as caloric restriction, rapamycin and metformin have been studied...

New Brain-Like Chip Uses Light to Go Blazingly Fast

Deep learning is having a serious moment right now in the world of AI. And for good reason. Loosely based on the brain’s computing architecture, artificial neural networks have vastly outperformed their predecessors in a...

Artificial Spinal Cord Wirelessly Restores Walking in Paralyzed Monkeys

Until a few years ago, reversing paralysis was the stuff of movie miracles. Yet according to Dr. Andrew Jackson, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University in the UK, as early as the end of this decade,...

Nanobionic Implant Transforms Spinach Into a Bomb Detector

"The trees, the flowers, the plants grow in silence… silence gives us a new perspective." –Mother Teresa When I think about plants, chatterbox isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But below the surface of...

Researchers Repair Brain Damage in Mice With Stem Cell Transplants

The human brain is a biological wonder with considerable skills. Regeneration, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. Save for one tiny V-shaped region within the hippocampus, the human brain’s ability to rebuild itself is nearly nonexistent....

Scientists Hook Up Brain to Tablet—Paralyzed Woman Googles With Ease

For patient T6, 2014 was a happy year. That was the year she learned to control a Nexus tablet with her brain waves, and literally took her life quality from 1980s DOS to modern era...

Google’s New AI Gets Smarter Thanks to a Working Memory

“The behavior of the computer at any moment is determined by the symbols which he is observing and his 'state of mind' at that moment.” – Alan Turing Artificial intelligence has a memory problem. Back in...

Mice Born From Artificial Eggs a ‘Stunning Achievement’

Last month, a team of British scientists successfully made healthy, fertile mice from pseudo-egg cells that resembled fertilized embryos. The story made waves: compared to normal egg cells, the pseudo-eggs were more similar to...

This Amazing Robotic Glove Lets You Touch the Virtual World

“Seeing is believing.” While there may be some truth in the old adage, it forgets a crucial component of how we interact with the world: touch. Touch makes things real. Imagine reaching out to grab your...

This Smart Vest Lets the Deaf ‘Hear’ With Their Skin

What are the limits of human perception? Take a second and concentrate on your surroundings: the subtle flickering of your laptop screen, the faint whiff of lingering coffee, the muffled sounds of traffic, the warm...

Surprising Embryo Study Pushes the Limits of How Life Begins

When sperm meets egg, life is ignited in a brilliant flash of light. If you were asked how babies are made in biology class, you’d probably answer with some version of the above dogma. Although...

Mind-Controlled Nanobots Used to Release Chemicals in Living Cockroaches

This is wild: a team of Israeli scientists developed a contraption that uses a person’s brain waves to remotely control DNA-based nanorobots  — while the nanobots were inside a living cockroach. When prompted by...

Will Letting AI Make Our Decisions Be the Best Decision We Make?

I confess: while writing this, I was intermittently procrastinating by browsing the overwhelming number of wireless headphone options on the market. As you may have heard, Apple just killed the headphone jack on their new...
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Like Video Games, Your Brain Has a Physics Engine That Simulates the World

Picture this: you’re standing in front of a pile of glistening avocados at a grocery store. You snatch one up, put it in your cart, and wheel off dreaming of nachos and guacamole —...

Paralysis Partially Reversed With Virtual Reality Tech in Surprising New Study

On June 12th, 2014, the world watched in awe as a young paraplegic kicked off the World Cup in Brazil with the help of a robotic exoskeleton controlled by his brain. Now, the team behind...

Your Conscious Brain Directs Your Actions Less Than You Think

Think your deliberate, guiding, conscious thoughts are in charge of your actions? Think again. In a provocative paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a team led by Dr. Ezequiel Morsella at San Francisco State University came...

IBM’s New Artificial Neurons a Big Step Toward Powerful Brain-Like Computers

Thanks to a sleek new computer chip developed by IBM, we are one step closer to making computers work like the brain. The neuromorphic chip is made from a phase-change material commonly found in rewritable...

No More Pills? Tiny Nerve-Zapping Implants to Fight Disease

Imagine a future where we can treat diabetes or autoimmune disorders with an electrical zap delivered by a device no larger than a speck of dust. The device, implanted through microsurgery, sits silently on a...

Scientists Complete the Most Detailed Map of the Brain Ever

To me, maps always conjure up a sense of exploration. Back in the Age of Discovery, rudimentary maps allowed European explorers to sail into the vast unknown. They began charting new worlds, and in turn,...

How Forgotten Baby Memories Rewire Learning in the Brain

If you're like me, you probably don't remember anything from your life before the age of three. This phenomenon, first dubbed by Sigmund Freud as "infantile amnesia,” occurs in many different species, yet why it happens...

How to Rebuild a Face With Jawbone Grown in the Lab

What’s in a face? Doctors say health. Psychologists say personality. Anthropologists say evolution. For me, it’s identity. Arguably, no other body part is as intimately tied to a sense of self as our unique visage. It’s part...

The Radical Search for a Magnetic ‘Sixth Sense’ in Humans

“Magnetic pull.” We often use the phrase to describe attraction, but only in a figurative way. After all, unlike homing pigeons, humans don’t have the power to perceive magnetic fields. Or do we? According to a small...

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