A new study published from PLOS ONE
, an authoritative American scientific journal, reveals the exceptional discovery of human neurons from a victim of the eruption that in AD 79 buried Herculaneum, Pompeii and the Vesuvius area up to 20 km away from the volcano.
Using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and advanced image processing tools Pier Paolo Petrone, forensic anthropologist at the University Federico II of Naples, and a team of archaeologists, geologists, biologists, forensic scientists, neurogeneticists and mathematicians managed for the first time to show the preservation of neuronal cells in the vitrified remains of brain and spinal cord, that Petrone discovered during his recent investigations at the Herculaneum archaeological site. "The discovery of brain tissue in ancient human remains is an unusual event - explains Petrone, team leader - but what is extremely rare is the integral preservation of neuronal structures of a 2000 years ago central nervous system, in our case at an unprecedented resolution".
The eruption, which devastated the Vesuvian area with thousands of casualties, caused the rapid burial of the town thus allowing the preservation of biological remains, even human ones. "The extraordinary discovery of perfectly preserved ancient neuronal structures has been induced by the conversion of human tissue into glass, which is indicative of the rapid cooling of the hot volcanic ash clouds that hit Herculaneum at the beginning of the eruption explain Guido Giordano, volcanologist at the University of Roma Tre. The results of our study show that the vitrification process occurred at Herculaneum, unique of its kind, has "frozen" the neuronal structures of this victim, preserving them intact until today", adds Petrone.
The investigation of the victims of the eruption continues in line with the various areas of research. The fusion of the knowledge of forensic anthropology and forensic medicine are giving unique information, otherwise not obtainable," says Massimo Niola, director of Legal Medicine at the University Federico II of Naples.
The study also investigated some proteins already identified by Petrone and colleagues in a paper published last January by the New England Journal of Medicine. An important aspect of the study concerns the expression of genes that encode several proteins isolated from the vitrified human brain tissue says Giuseppe Castaldo, a clinical biochemist at the University Federico II of Naples. Our data reveal that all the identified gene transcripts are present in various districts of the brain such as the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, amygdala or hypothalamus, adds Maria Pia Miano, neurogenetist at the National Research Council of Naples.
The investigation of the remains of the eruption victims does not stop here. These and other results of the bioanthropological and volcanological investigations underway at Herculaneum are gradually bringing to light details never before highlighted, which enrich the complex picture of events of the most famous of the Vesuvius eruptions says Petrone.
"The extraordinary results obtained by this research team - concludes Francesco Sirano, Director of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum - demonstrates the value of multidisciplinary studies and the uniqueness of this extraordinary site, once again in the international limelight with its priceless heritage of archaeological treasures and discoveries".
Pier Paolo Petrone is a forensic anthropologist. He is head of the Laboratory of Human Osteobiology and Forensic Anthropology at the departmental section of Legal Medicine, University Federico II of Naples.