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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


CRISPR Targets Cancer in First Human Trial — What You Need to Know

It’s happening: as early as later this year, the gene-editing power tool CRISPR could be used in its first ever human trial. On Tuesday June 21, an advisory panel from the National Institute of Health...

How to Build a Mind? This Learning Theory May Hold the 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...

Can Growing Human Organs in Pigs Solve the Organ Shortage?

Back in the 90s, a deeply disturbing image surfaced on the nascent Internet: a lab mouse with something looking like a human ear grown on its back. Although the “ear” was later proven to be...

How Your Brain Picks and Sticks With Winning Decisions

If you’re like me, you’ve spent countless hours scrolling through Netflix, trying to find the perfect show to watch. According to one estimate, adults make as many as 35,000 decisions in a day. Most —...

Can Tracking Our Hormones Make Us Smarter With Money?

Let’s face it: most of us suck at managing money. According to a National Bureau of Economics working paper published this March, roughly three quarters of all American households carry some form of debt. 40%...

Is the World Ready for Synthetic Life? Scientists Plan to Create Whole Genomes

Last weekend, an invite-only group of about 150 experts convened privately at Harvard. Behind closed doors, they discussed the prospect of designing and building an entire human genome from scratch, using only a computer,...

Can Dead Brains Be Brought Back to Life? First Human Study to Find Out

Last month, a Philadelphia-based biotech company kicked off a clinical trial that pushes the envelope of what it means to be dead. Armed with ethical approval from the IRB at the Anupam Hospital in India,...

This Droplet of DNA Could Store 600 Smartphones Worth of Retrievable Data

To most of us, DNA stores the code of all living things. But according to computer scientists, DNA may one day become the preferential storage medium for all things. Earlier this month, a team of scientists...

New 3D Printed Ovaries Allow Infertile Mice to Give Birth

It might be time to rethink fertility treatment. Here’s the scoop: scientists at Northwestern University 3D printed a functional ovary out of Jello-like material and living cells. When implanted into mice that had their ovaries...

Is the Brain’s Awareness of the World All or Nothing?

We often think of consciousness as binary: you’re either fully aware of something, or you’re not. Yet according to a team of cognitive neuroscientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conscious awareness is gradual....

Incredible ‘Living’ Alzheimer’s Implant Clears Mouse Brains of Toxic Junk

Alzheimer’s may be the cruelest of brain diseases. Decades before the first signs of dementia strike, toxic protein clumps called amyloid plaques have been slowly, insidiously building up in the brain. The plaques clog the...

The Sleeping Brain Is a Marvelous Memory Making Machine

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to learn Japanese. Linguists often say that the best way to learn a foreign language is to immerse yourself in it, and that’s what I did....

US Bets $100 Million on Machines That Think More Like Humans

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, it was a victory for NASA and a victory for...

Can You Download Knowledge Into Your Brain With Electricity?

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...

Eye on the Cure: Can Algae Genes Restore Vision in First Optogenetics Human Trial?

In the next month, scientists from RetroSense Therapeutics will inject a virus deep into the retina of legally blind human volunteers. The virus will carry what is perhaps the most monumental payload in modern neuroscience...

All the Brain-Boosting Goodness of Exercise…in a Pill?

Lets face it: Love it or hate it, exercise is good for our brains. Feeling stressed? Hit the trails: running boosts the fight-or-flight brain chemical norepinephrine and enhances our body’s ability to respond to stress....

Denying Death: Is Radically Longer Life 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...

How to Never Forget a Name? In the Future, We’ll Just Google Our Brain

Have you ever walked into a room and forgot why you where there? Or while in the middle of conversation forgot a person’s name? Or briefing your boss on a project, only to stumble...

The Secret to the Brain’s Memory Capacity May Be Synapse Size

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose… It is a mistake to think that that little...

How Old Are You, Really? Biological Age Is Harder to Pin Down Than You Think

In less than a month, I’ll be leaving my roaring 20s behind. Like anyone crossing into a new decade of life, it feels surreal. I don’t look 30. I don’t feel 30. My health is...

Anticipating Your Needs: Emotional Intelligence Is the Key to Smarter Gadgets

It’s weekend rush hour. You’re stuck in traffic. You got cut off. You’re increasingly frustrated. Your heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket. As you’re fuming in traffic, an inconspicuous device on your wrist silently tracks...

This Magnetic Wand May Fix Brain Circuits Gone Wrong In Addiction

We often think of addiction as a moral dilemma — a sort of spiritual calamity that one needs to rebuild their entire lives around to conquer. But what if that’s not the case? What if...

How Artificial Immune Systems May Be the Future of Cybersecurity

2015 was a year of jaw-dropping hacks. From CIA director John Brennan’s private email to Sony Inc, from the IRS to CVS, from Target to the notorious Ashley Madison, millions of people suffered from cybersecurity...

Inside OpenAI: Will Transparency Protect Us From Artificial Intelligence Run Amok?

Last Friday at the Neural Information and Processing Systems conference in Montreal, Canada, a team of artificial intelligence luminaries announced OpenAI, a non-profit company set to change the world of machine learning. Backed by Tesla...

Designing Robots That Learn as Effortlessly as Babies

A wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked, babbling human baby hardly looks like the ultimate learning machine. But under the hood, an 18-month-old can outlearn any state-of-the-art artificial intelligence algorithm. Their secret sauce? They watch; they imitate; and they extrapolate. Artificial intelligence...

Longer Life in a Pill May Already Be Available at Your Local Drug Store

To most of the scientific community, “anti-aging” is a dirty word. A medical field historically associated with charlatans and quacks, scientists have strictly restricted the quest for a “longevity pill” to basic research. The paradigm...

Gene Drives Could Wipe Out Insect-Borne Disease — But What’s the Price?

In 2014, a few days after Christmas, Dr. Valentino Gantz walked into his lab at the University of California, San Diego to check on some newly hatched fruit flies. With a single look, he knew...

Bugs as Drugs: Seeking the Microbial Secret to Health

Our body is, in essence, more ecosystem than organism. The human body teems with trillions of microbes — bacteria, viruses and fungi — and at any moment, we may be carrying between one and three...

First Human Tests of Memory Boosting Brain Implant—a Big Leap Forward

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all.” — Luis Buñuel Portolés,...

Rats Engineered to See Infrared Light, Use It to Seek Out Water

The brain is a great information processor, but one that doesn’t care about where information comes from. Sight, scent, taste, sound, touch — all of our precious senses, once communicated to the brain, are transformed...

Speeding Up Physical Therapy With ‘Matrix’-Like Brain Training? It Isn’t So Far Fetched

Learning to walk again after a traumatic accident is no easy task. One of the hardest things for motor-impaired patients is to generate the correct brain signals to help them recover efficiently. The current best option...

Scientists Connect Brain to a Basic Tablet—Paralyzed Patient 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...

Wireless AI Device Tracks and Zaps the Brain, Takes Aim at Parkinson’s

Zapping the brain with implanted electrodes may sound like a ridiculously dangerous treatment, but for many patients with Parkinson’s disease, deep brain stimulation (DBS) is their only relief. The procedure starts with open-skull surgery. Guided...

How Aged Neurons In a Dish Can Accelerate Longevity Research

Aging insidiously leaves its mark on our brains. With age, our well-oiled neuronal machinery slowly breaks down: gene expression patterns turn wacky, the nuclear membrane disintegrates, and neatly organized molecules inside the cells break out...

Forget Humans vs. Machines: It’s a Humans + Machines Future

Forget humans versus machines: humans plus machines is what will drive society forward. This was the central message conveyed by Dr. John Kelly, senior vice president of IBM Research, at the Augmenting Human Intelligence...

Naughty or Nice? One Brain Scan Is Now All It Takes to Find Out

With a simple scan of your brain at rest, scientists can now guess whether — on average — you are naughty or nice. “We have now begun to see really strong evidence of a connection...

Playing 20 Questions by ‘Telepathy’? Big Score for Brain-to-Brain Communication

Interpersonal communication just got a lot more intimate. So intimate, in fact, that two strangers — physically separated by a mile — can literally get into each other’s heads to solve problems together, using only...

Brain-Controlling Sound Waves Used to Steer Genetically Modified Worms

Move over optogenetics, there’s a new cool mind-bending tool in town. A group of scientists, led by Dr. Sreekanth Chalasani at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, discovered a new way to control neurons using...

Meet the Mind-Controlling Algae Protein That Could Cure Blindness

It sounds completely crazy: as early as next year, using gene therapy scientists hope to restore sight in the blind by giving their eyes additional “light sensors.” We’re not talking about bionic eyes: instead of...

Why We Should Embrace — Not Fear — the Biohacker Uprising

Dr. Steve Kurtz was making arrangements for his wife Hope’s funeral when the FBI burst in. Kurtz, a professor of arts at the New York State University, was detained and interrogated for 22 hours as...

Gene Therapy May Be Our Newest — and Most Effective — Weapon Against Alzheimer’s Disease

In 2001, a team of neurologists at UC San Diego began testing a highly experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The process sounds far more sci-fi than science: Using tiny pieces of skin taken from the...

We May Soon Have a Lifelong, One-Shot Flu Vaccine — and Halt the Next Pandemic Before It Starts

The battle with flu is a seasonal struggle, and one we don’t always win. The effectiveness of flu vaccines vary tremendously from year to year, and the reason is simple. There are three major types...

How We’re Battling Virtual Reality’s Dreaded Simulator Sickness

Like many other eager early adopters, my first encounter with virtual reality headsets began with heart-pounding excitement, and ended in nightmarish nausea. To an unfortunate subpopulation of people, virtual reality’s side effects are no joke....

First 3D-Printed Drug Ushers in Era of Downloadable Medicine

3D-printed widgets are taking the medical world by storm. Polymer-based skull implants? Check. Doughnut-shaped Tylenol pills? Check. Totally rad-looking prosthetic arms with a $150 price tag? Check again. These, and plenty other medical novelties, clearly...

Are Artificial Neural Networks the Key to Unravelling the Mysteries of Autism?

Autism is a tough nut to crack. Part of the reason is complexity: The disorder manifests in a bewildering array of symptoms — everything from basic perceptual disturbances to high-level cognitive and social deficits. Because...

Think Your Conscious Brain Directs Your Actions? Think Again

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

How Tiny Lab-Grown Human Brains Are Giving Big Insights Into Autism

First came lab-grown mini-hearts. Then came 3D printed skin. Now scientists have taken “body on a chip” to a whole new level. Starting with skin cells from patient biopsies, scientists transformed them back into stem...

Animal Brains Networked Into Organic Computer ‘Brainet’

Imagine a future where computers no longer run on silicon chips. The replacement? Brains. Thanks to two separate studies recently published in Scientific Reports, we may be edging towards that future. In a series of experiments,...

How the Brain Makes Memories: Scientists Tap Memory’s Neural Code

Some of our most treasured memories begin with a simple association: the smiling face of that special someone, tied forever to the place where you first met. Sadly, these episodic memories — memories that encode...

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