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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


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...

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...

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