This Ancient Human Brain Remained Almost Perfectly Intact For 2,600 Years — And Experts Might Finally Know Why

Published January 8, 2020

A new study found that a mysterious compound could have protected the brain from being attacked by destructive enzymes.

Heslington Brain

Axel PetzoldScientists have long been baffled by this 2,600-year-old brain that has remained largely intact — until now.

In 2008, archaeologists dug up a man’s skull at an excavation site in the U.K. The man who the skull belonged to most likely died thousands of years ago — possibly by hanging, judging by the damage to the neck vertebrae. The decapitated skull was at least 2,600 years old.

Naturally, most of the remains had deteriorated, but the researchers found something peculiar. A small piece of the brain remained intact.

Dubbed the “Heslington brain” after it was found in the British village of Heslington, the exceptionally well-preserved piece of brain is the oldest brain specimen that has ever been discovered in the U.K.

But how did this brain last for so long without completely deteriorating like most of the other body parts? Researchers may finally have an answer.

According to Science Alert, researchers involved in a recent study examining the well-preserved brain believe the key lies in a mysterious compound that spread from the outside of the organ.

Heslington Brain Specimen

Axel Petzold, et alThe Heslington brain after it was dug up during the excavation.

“Combined, the data suggest that the proteases of the ancient brain might have been inhibited by an unknown compound which had diffused from the outside of the brain to the deeper structures,” they wrote in the report.

Researchers noted the putrefaction of the human body after death usually starts within 36 to 72 hours, and complete skeletonization is typically expected within five to 10 years. Therefore, “the preservation of human brain proteins at ambient temperature should not be possible for millennia in free nature.”

But results suggest that a Heslington brain situation could be possible if an unidentified compound acted as a “blocker” to protect the organic material from destructive enzymes called proteases in the months after death.

Researchers believe this unknown “blocker” prevented the proteases from attacking the Heslington brain, allowing the organ’s proteins to form stabilized aggregates that made it harder for the material to break down — even in warm temperatures.

Over the course of a year, the team closely monitored the progressive breakdown of proteins in another modern brain specimen, which they then compared with the degradation of the Heslington brain.

Our brains are able to function through a network of intermediate filaments (IFs) inside our brains, which maintain the connection between our neurons and their long bodies.

In the study’s experiment, the Heslington brain appeared to possess shorter and narrower weaves of IFs, mimicking those of a living brain.

Iron Age Skull

Axel Petzold, et alWhile much of the body had deteriorated, the Heslington brain was well-preserved in the skull.

But despite its well-preserved appearance, the Heslington brain’s cells are without a doubt nonfunctional. So, even though the brain appears to be in good condition, it’s still a dead brain at the end of the day.

Further analysis of the well-preserved Iron Age brain suggests the protective “blocker” likely originated from outside of the organ — possibly from the environment where the skull had been buried — instead of it being an anomaly production of the brain itself.

Researchers have yet to determine exactly why the IFs in the Heslington brain didn’t break down as they should have, especially with only one such specimen to examine. Nonetheless, the findings might help scientists learn more about how destructive plaques form inside our brains.

Maybe we’ll solve the rest of the puzzle in another decade or so.

Now that you’ve learned how researchers are getting closer to solving the mystery of the Heslington brain, read about the 4,000-year-old brain that was preserved — after boiling in its own fluids. Then, read how Chinese scientists engineered smarter monkeys by giving them genes from the human brain.

Natasha Ishak
A former staff writer for All That's Interesting, Natasha Ishak holds a Master's in journalism from Emerson College and her work has appeared in VICE, Insider, Vox, and Harvard's Nieman Lab.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Ishak, Natasha. "This Ancient Human Brain Remained Almost Perfectly Intact For 2,600 Years — And Experts Might Finally Know Why.", January 8, 2020, Accessed June 19, 2024.