2,600 year old Heslington brain: Secrets of preservation unlocked

The Heslington Brain is a 2,600-year-old human brain found inside a skull buried in a pit in Heslington, Yorkshire, in England, by York Archaeological Trust in 2008. It is the oldest preserved brain ever found in Eurasia, and is believed to be the best-preserved ancient brain in the world. The skull was discovered during an archaeological dig commissioned by the University of York on the site of its new campus on the outskirts of the city of York. [...] The brain was found while the skull was being cleaned. It had survived despite the rest of the tissue on the skull having disappeared long ago. [...] The area was found to have been the site of well-developed permanent habitation between 2,000–3,000 years before the present day.


EXCERPT: Scientists have unlocked some of the secrets behind the preservation of a 2,600-year-old human brain that was discovered in York. [...] Lead author Dr Axel Petzold, of the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, had spent years researching two types of filaments in the brain – neurofilaments and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) – which act like scaffolds to hold brain matter together.

He and his team found both of these were still present in the Heslington brain, suggesting they played a key role in keeping the brain matter together. Typically, brains decompose quite quickly after death in a rapid process of autolysis – enzymes breaking up the tissue.

The findings suggest that an acidic fluid may have got into the brain and prevented autolysis. Both filaments are typically found in greater concentrations in inner areas of the brain, but in the preserved Heslington brain there were more in the outer areas of the brain. According to the researchers, this suggests the inhibition of autolysis would have started in the outer parts of the brain, potentially as an acidic fluid seeped into it.

Dr Petzold said the manner of this individual’s death, or subsequent burial, may have enabled the brain’s long term preservation. “Something cruel must have happened to this person,” he said, pointing to evidence that the person was hit hard on the head or neck before being decapitated. (MORE - details)

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