Well preserved 2,000-year-old brain cells found in Vesuvius victim

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Well preserved 2,000-year-old brain cells found in Vesuvius victim

Preserved brain cells of a young man who died in the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago have been found.

A high-resolution image depicts the brain axons discovered in the well-preserved remains of a Vesuvius victim

When a hail of volcanic ash covered the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum in the year 79 AD, the man died in his bed, parts of his brain were effectively frozen intact.

Italian scientists studied his remains while working at the archaeological site and said their discovery could help protect people during future volcanic eruptions. 

‘The study of vitrified tissue as the one we found at Herculaneum… may save lives in future,’ study lead author Pier Paolo Petrone said.

The room in Herculaneum where scientists found the brain cells

‘The experimentation continues on several research fields, and the data and information we are obtaining will allow us to clarify other and newer aspects of what happened 2000 years ago during the most famous eruption of Vesuvius.’

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The victim whose samples were examined was a man aged around 20 whose remains were discovered in the 1960s Splayed on a wooden bed.

The bed where the man died

The extreme heat of the eruption and the rapid cooling that followed essentially turned the brain to a glassy material, freezing the neuronal structures and leaving them intact.

‘The evidence of a rapid drop of temperature – witnessed by the vitrified brain tissue – is a unique feature of the volcanic processes occurring during the eruption, as it could provide relevant information for possible interventions by civil protection authorities during the initial stages of a future eruption,’ according to Dr Petrone.

Vesuvius’ eruption covered Herculaneum in a toxic, metres-thick layer of volcanic ash, gases and lava flow which then turned to stone, encasing the city.

This allowed an extraordinary degree of frozen-in-time preservation both of city structures and of residents unable to flee.

A scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of the brain cells
The remains are nearly 2,000 years old

As they investigated the organic material turned up by the study, researchers managed to obtain unprecedented high-resolution imagery using scanning electron microscopy and advanced image processing tools.

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With the post-eruption preservation locking in the cellular structure of the victim’s central nervous system, researchers seized on the chance ‘to study possibly the best-known example in the archaeology of extraordinarily well-preserved human neuronal tissue from the brain and spinal cord.’

The research was published on Tuesday by the US peer-reviewed science journal PLOS ONE.


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