Scientists discovered a 2,000-year-old human skull from the victim of an eruption by Mount Vesuvius to still have its brain cells completely intact. The groundbreaking finding was discovered in Italy when experts studied the corpse which was first discovered in the 1960s.
The young man's remains were found in a city called Herculaneum which was buried by the devastating volcanic eruption in 79 AD.
Brain of glass
According to CNN, researchers discovered the young victim lying face-down on a wooden bed inside a building they believed housed devotees who worshipped Emperor Augustus. Scientists estimated the man to have been about 25 years old when he died.
Forensic Anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone of the University of Naples Federico II was the leader of the research team. He told reporters that the project began when he observed some form of glassy material shining inside the skull of the man while working on the skeleton in 2018.
The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper earlier this year where Petrone and his colleagues revealed that the shiny substance found within the man's skull as a result of the vitrification of the victim's brain due to the intense heat of the volcanic eruption and subsequent rapid cooling.
Petrone explained the process is where the brain gets exposed to the temperature of the hot volcanic ash which must first be liquefied before immediately turning into a glassy material by the rapid cooling of the ash deposit.
Analysis of the specimen includes the use of an electron microscope whereby the research team discovered cells inside the vitrified brain. The scientists noted how very well-preserved the brain cells were, which could be seen clearer than any other sample.
Petrone's team also discovered nerve cells in the spinal cord intact, which have also been vitrified similar to the man's brain.
Rare but not unprecedented
Forensic Anthropologist Tim Thompson of the Teesside University from the United Kingdom said that brains typically do not survive for a long time after a person's death. He added a human's mind is one of the first things that decompose in the standard process, but noted that the survival of the specimen is not unprecedented, as reported by Arstechnica.
Another expert, graduate student Alexandra Hayward from the University of Copenhagen told reporters that brain tissue could be preserved and that the event is a lot more frequent than most people realize possible.
Hayward has been able to discover nearly 1,300 preserved brain specimens that date back to the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries. The sample that Petrone and his team studies was dated very old and also unique in terms of the exact process by which the scientists believe it was preserved.
The event that killed the victim was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which released a massive amount of thermal energy estimated to be equivalent to 100,000 atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastating incident caused molten rocks, pumice, and hot ash to be thrown into the air over Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as other cities.