“Intact” neuronal structures taken from a victim of the eruption of Vesuvius

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“Intact” neural structures were discovered in a victim of the Vesuvius eruption (Italy) nearly 2,000 years ago, researchers reveal in an article published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The neuronal cells were taken from the remains of a vitrified brain and spinal cord, at the archaeological site of Herculaneum, near Pompei, an ancient city in southern Italy buried under volcanic rock in 79 AD.

The victim is a young man in his twenties whose body was found, lying on a wooden bed, during searches in the 1960s.

“The discovery of brain tissue in ancient human remains is unusual but what is extremely rare is the complete preservation of neuronal structures from a 2000 year old nervous system,” explained anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone, of the Federico II University of Naples.

These discoveries offer “a unique look at the structure of an old central nervous system” and “could save lives in the future,” he told AFP.

The eruption covered Herculaneum with a matrix of ejecta (lava, rock fragments, ash) 10 meters thick, which froze the site and allowed the preservation through the centuries of biological materials.

The “conversion of human tissue to glass is testament to the rapid cooling of hot volcanic ash clouds at the start of the eruption,” the study’s authors write.

This vitrification process “froze the neuronal structures of the victim, keeping them intact until today,” said Petrone.

It testifies to a process characteristic of an eruption which “could provide relevant information for the intervention of the civil protection services during the initial phases of an eruption”, according to him.

Researchers achieved unprecedented image resolution using scanning electron microscopy (SEM).

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