Preserved brain tissue, victim of ancient Vesuvius eruption, scientists report


Herculaneum, as it appears today.

Herculaneum, as it appears today.
The image: Pier Paolo Petron

About 2,000 years ago the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius is famous for saving many of its victims in the ashes of the volcano. New research suggests that this protection extends to the cellular level, due to the apparent discovery of neurons in a prey whose brain was turned into glass during an explosion.

new The research The discovery of neuronal tissue is described in an in vitroified brain published today in PLOS One and is related to the spinal cord Mount Vesuvius eruption, which took place in 79 BC.

“The discovery of brain tissue in ancient human remains is an unusual phenomenon,” said a press release, Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University Federico II in Italy and the lead author of the new study. “But what is extremely rare is the integral preservation of neuronal structures of the 2,000-year-old central nervous system in our case at an unprecedented resolution.”

The room in which the preserved brain was found.

The room in which the preserved brain was found.
The image: Pier Paolo Petron

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated many ancient Roman cities, including Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabia, and Opalontis. After a series of earthquakes, the volcano threw molten rock, hot ash, and a huge column of pumice into the sky. Residents of nearby settlements quickly succumbed to pyroclastic flows – a rapidly rising avalanche of super-material material. An estimated 2,000 people were killed during the explosion.

Many victims survived, including rapid burial in falling volcanic ash and the famous conservation at Pompeii. In some cases, however, intense heat was caused Skulls of victims, As the temperature suddenly rose to 932 ° F (500 ° C). In Herculaneum, some residents sought shelter in nearby boat chambers, where they were Baked alive.

Research published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the condition was still on that day Turned a victim’s brain into a glassDescribed in a paper led by Petron. Vitrification is the process in which intense heat transforms tissue into a dirty material – a very good medium for preserving the structure at both macro and micro levels. The male prey found in Hericulinum, found lying on a wooden bed and buried in the ashes of a volcano.

A piece of vitrified brain.

A piece of vitrified brain.
The image: Pier Paolo Petron

Petrone, with an interdisciplinary team of experts, has a keen eye on the same vitrified brain, finding evidence of neuronal structures within. Researchers say this is evidence of the rapid cooling of a warm volcanic ash cloud that struck Herculaneum during the early stages of the eruption. The resulting disinfection strengthened the man’s neuronal structures, preserving them for nearly 2,000 years, according to scientists.

Using a scanning electron microscope and an image-processing tool designed for neural networks, the team uncovered traces of a central nervous system, including residues of brain cells, axons, myelins, and cellular microtubules. The structures seen in these microscopic images look very systematic, suggesting a remarkable degree of protection in this vitrified brain.

For a second line of evidence, researchers analyzed proteins discovered earlier this year, which found that genes within these proteins are associated with the expression of various structures in the human brain. These proteins “further agree with the neuronal origin of unusual archaeological discovery,” the authors write in their study.

A scanning electron microscope image showing that axons resemble worms sticking to neuronal cells.

A scanning electron microscope image showing that axons resemble worms sticking to neuronal cells.
The image: Pier Paolo Petron

Zachery Throckmorton, a paleontologist and research fellow at the University of Johannesburg, praised the authors’ use of evidence from two different lines to support their finding, but they have not been fully understood by the new paper.

“His protein residue analysis supports his claim, but the complexity of gene expression in whole body tissues makes his findings not definitive but definitive,” Throckmorton said in an email.

On the other hand, the microscopic images shown in the paper “suggest more strongly that he actually discovered [nerve cells] Preserved in this Vesuvius victim, ”he said. Nevertheless, Throckmorton believes that the author’s claims may be influenced by comparative experimental images. To be completely convinced, he “prefers to view his images more than mammalian central nervous system tissue, which is experimentally vitrified under known, controlled conditions.”

Tim Thompson, a professor of applied biological anthropology at the University of Taseed in Britain, felt that the new paper, like Petrone’s previous work, “did not have enough information for an outsider to properly evaluate it”. Said during a video call.

They do not preserve very well, mind said, and they are often the first thing to disintegrate after death. Thus, the new study “sheds light on the complexity of conservation in Herculaneum.” Thompson said he does not know if the authors actually found preserved neurological structures, but the new paper suggests that not all people were killed by a wave of superheat gas known as hot surge clouds Was immediately evaporated. As a forensic expert, Thomas wants to know how such a preservation is possible as well, noting that the new paper “doesn’t really do that.”

During the same video call, Matthew Collins, a professor of paleoproteomics (studying ancient proteins) at the University of Copenhagen, agreed with Thompson that he found it “disappointing” that the authors did not release all of their raw data, Claiming that Petron makes a habit of this. The microscopic images shown in the paper appear “for the structures”, he said, “but I would like to see more.” To which he stated: “There is clearly something going on in brain protection, and it is very exciting.” It is understandable that such a conservation is possible, he said, as the human body is a “liquid-rich medium” in which the bits on the outside do not cook as fast as the inside parts is.

The opening sentence of the new paper states that the detection of microscopic brain tissue is “a rare occurrence in human archaeological remains that may provide unique insights into the structure of the ancient central nervous system.” Thompson, Collins, and Alexandra Morton-Hayward, a University College London archaeologist who took part in the video chat, respectfully disagreed. Recently NJMM The paper Co-authored by all three argue that brain tissue is very common in the archaeological record. In his paper, scientists provide several examples, including the organic matter found in well-preserved ancient Egypt Mummified corpses And Skulls buried In marshy earthen pits.

“Your readers need to know that, when it comes to finding ancient brain tissue, this latest discovery is not so special,” said Morton-Hayward, who led the NEJM study. “More than 1,300 brains have been reported in various contexts in the archaeological record since the mid-17th century. It’s staggering at this point, and not unique, and in some ways not exciting either. “The problem, he said, is that these brains are not being studied enough, which may explain underreporting.

To be clear, Morton-Hayward was excited by the potential discovery of brain tissue in these vitrified residues. Conserved brains found in heat-based contexts are “not so common”, he said, but it is Happen, If Petrone and her colleagues actually found a “well-preserved microstructure” in the sample, she would “not be surprised”.

“Herculaneum is an extraordinary site, and with an exciting context,” said Morton-Hayward. “We are finding protected minds around the world, and I hope this is the beginning of much work in that area.”

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