Recently, researchers in Italy discovered intact neurons in the brain of a young man who died from a volcanic eruption some 2,000 years ago.
In the year 79 AD a huge volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried many cities, including Pompeii and Herculaneum, under mounds of ash. The ruins soon became a hotspot for archaeologists as they aimed to uncover the mysteries of ancient civilizations.
In the 1960s, within the ruins of Herculaneum, a young man’s remains were found buried underneath the ash.
When Dr. Pier Paolo Petrone, a biomedical researcher at the University of Naples Federico II, was called in to examine the young victim he noticed something black shining from within the skull. The small black fragments had a glassy appearance and only appeared in the victim’s skull.
Pier hypothesized the victim’s brain had likely undergone vitrification due to the high heat from the volcanic eruption.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported the findings of Dr. Pier’s research.
Vitrification – Brain turned to Glass
Vitrification refers to tissue turning into glass or glaze from extremely high temperatures.
Charred wood from the archeological site suggests temperatures rose up to 520 degrees Celsius during the eruption. The hot volcanic ash likely liquefied the victim’s brain and immediately turned it into a glassy material due to the rapid cooling of the volcanic ash.
The detection of several proteins usually found in the human brain and, fatty acids typically found in human hair also indicate the black glassy fragments to be vitrified brain tissue.
‘Exceptionally Well-Preserved’ Neurons Found in Vitrified Brain
A recently published paper in the journal PLOS One took a closer look at the vitrified brain tissue. The team of researchers, led by Dr. Pier Paolo Petrone, analyzed the glassy material using electron microscopy and advanced imaging tools.
Dr. Pier described the cells as ‘extremely well-preserved’. This is the first-ever discovery of ancient brain structures vitrified by a volcanic eruption.
In conclusion, the discovery has been described as an extaordinary achievement and a huge blessing for researchers. Researchers hope to further analyse the process of vitrification.
Petrone, Pierpaolo, et al. “Heat-Induced Brain Vitrification from the Vesuvius Eruption in C.e. 79.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 382, no. 4, 2020, pp. 383–384., doi:10.1056/nejmc1909867.
Petrone P, Pucci P, Vergara A, Amoresano A, Birolo L, et al. (2018) A hypothesis of sudden body fluid vaporization in the 79 AD victims of Vesuvius. PLOS ONE 13(9): e0203210. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203210