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Discovery of Intact Brain Cells From 79 AD Is 'Unprecedented'

25-year-old man died when Mount Vesuvius erupted
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 5, 2020 5:10 PM CDT
Updated Oct 10, 2020 2:00 PM CDT

(Newser) – The skeleton of a man killed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 was discovered in the 1960s. But it was only recently that a forensic anthropologist made another startling discovery: "incredibly well-preserved" brain cells in the man's skull. Pier Paolo Petrone was working around the skull in 2018 in Italy when he spotted "some glassy material shining from within the skull," CNN reports. "The brain exposed to the hot volcanic ash must first have liquefied and then immediately turned into a glassy material by the rapid cooling of the volcanic ash deposit," he said, causing the shiny appearance. Based on charred wood left near the skeleton, a volcanologist figures the temperature reached more than 500 degrees after the volcano erupted, burying the city of Herculaneum.

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The preservation of the brain cells is "totally unprecedented," the volcanologist said. "This opens up the room for studies of these ancient people that have never been possible." Nerve cells also were found intact in the spinal cord. The remains of the man, whom researchers believe to have been about 25, was found face-down on a wooden bed in a building apparently devoted to the worship of the Emperor Augustus. Researchers hope to learn more about the temperatures reached in causing vitrification. That could still be relevant; more than 3 million people live in the nearby Naples area, and Petrone said Vesuvius is "the most dangerous volcano in the world." (A bedroom in Pompeii expressed "explicit sensuality.")

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