Vesuvius volcano victim’s brain keeps neurons preserved

The vitrified brain of a man who was a victim of the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, which occurred about 2,000 years ago and which destroyed the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, in Italy, still has preserved neurons. This is what a study published last Friday (02) reveals in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

According to forensic anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone of the University of Naples Federico II, a more in-depth analysis of the remains revealed that the brain cells were well preserved. “The discovery of brain tissue in ancient human remains is an unusual event,” Petrone told Ars Technica.

The study leader revealed that the researchers analyzed the vitrified brain sample with scanning electron microscopy. With this, it was possible to identify evidence of neurons and axons, in addition to fatty acids present in human hair, among other materials that may be part of the human cerebellum and spinal cord.

“Brain of glass”

In early 2020, another study published in New England Journal of Medicine he had already indicated that the remains discovered in the 1960s where Herculaneum was located included the vitrified brain of a victim of Vesuvius.

According to the research, the glass organ belonged to a 25-year-old man whose body was found lying face down on a wooden bed amidst a pile of volcanic ash. Researchers believe the victim was asleep when the lava reached the site, causing death and destruction.

The transformation of the brain into vitrified material would have been caused by the lava’s high temperature, around 500 °C, followed by rapid cooling, as indicated by the scientists. In this way, the soft tissues of the body were vaporized and the skull exploded, but as the body rapidly cooled, the pieces of the brain turned to glass.

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Next steps for the study

The group led by Petrone includes archaeologists, forensic scientists, biologists, neurogeneticists and mathematicians and now wants to discover more details about the vitrification process.

From new analyzes of the remains, they intend to know the exact temperatures to which the volcano’s victims were exposed and the rate of cooling of the volcanic ash. Another idea is to analyze the proteins found and their related genes.

The theory about the cause of brain vitrification is disputed by other scientists, so new details about the process are essential for the research.

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