Scientists in Italy have found the intact brain cells inside the skull of a young man who perished in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago. The city of Herculaneum, which would be the modern day area outside Naples, was buried by ash during the volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. In the 1960s, scientists began studying the human remains discovered in the area after years of digging.
The victim, who was found lying face-down on a wooden bed in a building thought to have been devoted to the worship of the Emperor Augustus, was around 25 years old at the time of his death, according to the researchers.
Since 2018, the skeleton of the victim was studied by Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II who led the research. He told CNN that the project to see if the brain cells were intact in the victim started when he saw "some glassy material shining from within the skull,” two years ago.
Petrone and his team published their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year and noted that the “glassy material shining” from within the skull occurred due to the rapid cooling from the lava.
"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 wrote.
Upon further research, the team found cells in the brain, which were "incredibly well-preserved with a resolution that is impossible to find anywhere else," according to Petrone. CNN also reports that the researchers also found intact nerve cells in the spinal cord, which, like the brain, had been vitrified.
"This opens up the room for studies of these ancient people that have never been possible," Petrone told CNN.
The victim will continue to be further studied.