Archaeologists were shocked in 2008 when they found a human brain dating from the Iron Age. The finding seemed to challenge basic biology; human brains, like any other soft tissue, usually decline shortly after death.
While much of the body had deteriorated, the Heslington brain was well-preserved in the skull.
But now, scientists have found out how 2,600 years of this brain remained intact.
Multiple factors played a role, they said in their new study, including tightly folded brain proteins of the person and the way the individual was buried in what is now York, England.
The so-called “Heslington brain” made headlines after the York Archeological Trust in the village of Heslington excavated its mud-covered skull and found the well-preserved brain within.”Even if coated with dust, after washing, individual brain gyri are discernible, “the researchers wrote in the study. Radiocarbon dating suggested the person lived around 673 B.C. B.C. to 482.
A researcher examines the Iron Age brain found in Heslington, England.
Sediment found inside the skull.
The scientists found that whosoever buried the mystery person did not use any artificial preservation techniques. Rather, the way the person was buried seems to have made a major difference. It’s also possible that an unknown disease altered the person’s brain proteins before he or she expired, the researchers said.
“The manner of this individual’s death, or subsequent burial, may have enabled the brain’s long-term preservation,” study lead researcher Axel Petzold, an associate professor at the University College London Queen Square Institute of Neurology, said in a statement.
Petzold has spent years studying two types of filaments in the brain: neurofilaments and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), both of which act like scaffolds that hold brain matter together. When Petzold and his team looked at the Heslington brain, they saw that these filaments were still present, raising the idea they played a role in the brain’s extraordinary preservation, he said.
The Heslington brain after it was dug up during the excavation.
In most circumstances, brains rot after enzymes from the environment and the dead person’s microbiome eat up the tissue. But for the Heslington brain, it’s possible that these enzymes were deactivated within three months, according to experiments the researchers did.
In these tests, Petzold and his colleagues found that it takes about three months for proteins to fold themselves into tight aggregates if these enzymes are not present.
Perhaps an acidic fluid invaded the brain and prevented these enzymes from causing decay before or just after the person died, Petzold said. He added that this enigmatic person likely died after being struck in the head or neck, hanged or decapitated.
Typically, neurofilament proteins are found in greater concentrations in the white matter, located in the inner parts of the brain. But the Heslington brain was an anomaly, with more filaments in the outer, grey matter areas.
It’s possible that whatever stopped the enzymes from decomposing the brain began on the outer regions of the brain, like an acidic solution seeping into the brain, Petzold said.
The finding may provide insight into treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The team looked at how long it takes brain protein aggregates to unfold themselves, finding that it took an entire year.
This suggests that treatments for neurodegenerative diseases that involve protein aggregates may need a more long-term approach than previously thought.
This isn’t the only ancient human brain tissue archaeologists have found. For instance, roughly 8,000-year-old brain material was found inside human skulls that had received an underwater burial in Sweden. That said, the Heslington brain is among the best-preserved ancient human brains, the researchers said.