Saturday, August 25, 2012

Heslington Brain

With the publication of a scholarly article in the Journal of Archaeological Science, we learn more about the well-preserved brain I featured in April 2011. The so-called Heslington Brain (images above, more photos here) is believed to be - at more than 2,600 years old - the best-preserved prehistoric brain in the world. The Medical Daily reads, "The finding is particularly astonishing because, even when left on a counter in a chilled mortuary facility, brains tend to degrade quickly into liquid. This one, however, had the consistency of tofu, and had none of the distinctive smell so often associated with dead corpses." What was revealed last year were the circumstances of the burial in an Iron Age settlement in what is now York, England. The man had been hanged between the ages of 26-45 and his severed head was buried apart from his body without being intentionally preserved. When his skull was excavated in 2008 (photo of dig here), the brain inside had been reduced in volume due to loss of water but intact. The remarkable preservation was attributed to a quick burial in clay, since it was cool (slowing the actions of enzymes), anaerobic (reducing microbial action), and separate from the body (keeping it out contact with digestive bacteria). The newly-published study confirms that the shape of the brain is intact, but the interior is not: "Although the distinctive surface morphology of the organ is preserved, little recognizable brain histology survives." Authors Sonia O'Connor et al. do remind their colleagues to be aware of such preservation, since their survey of the literature shows that the survival of brain tissue in otherwise skeletonized human remains from wet burial environments is not unique.
Blogging 'bout brains:

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