Detecting the ultrastructure of brain tissue in human archaeological remains is a rare event that can offer unique insights into the structure of the ancient central nervous system (CNS). Yet ancient brains reported in the literature show only poor preservation of neuronal structures. Using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and advanced image processing tools, we describe the direct visualization of neuronal tissue in vitrified brain and spinal cord remains which we discovered in a male victim of the AD 79 eruption in Herculaneum. We show exceptionally well preserved ancient neurons from different regions of the human CNS at unprecedented resolution. This tissue typically consists of organic matter, as detected using energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy. By means of a self-developed neural image processing network, we also show specific details of the neuronal nanomorphology, like the typical myelin periodicity evidenced in the brain axons. The perfect state of preservation of these structures is due to the unique process of vitrification which occurred at Herculaneum. The discovery of proteins whose genes are expressed in the different region of the human adult brain further agree with the neuronal origin of the unusual archaeological find. The conversion of human tissue into glass is the result of sudden exposure to scorching volcanic ash and the concomitant rapid drop in temperature. The eruptive-induced process of natural vitrification, locking the cellular structure of the CNS, allowed us to study possibly the best known example in archaeology of extraordinarily well-preserved human neuronal tissue from the brain and spinal cord.
Petrone, P., Giordano, G., Vezzoli, E., Pensa, A., Castaldo, G., Graziano, V., et al. (2020). Preservation of neurons in an AD 79 vitrified human brain. PLOS ONE, 15(10), e0240017 [10.1371/journal.pone.0240017].