Best Preserved: A Human Brain That Hasn’t Rotted for 2,600 Years


Kylie Ha, Staff Writer

Discovered within a pit in Heslington, Yorkshire, England in 2008 is the oldest preserved brain in Eurasia—even dating back to the Iron Age! Though most brains typically decay almost immediately after death, this finding not only defied the rules of biology and natural death, but boggled scientists all around the world. Although there isn’t a clear answer, multiple factors such as the way the person was buried and how tightly the proteins were folded may have contributed to the almost perfect preservation of the brain.

Through radiocarbon dating, researchers found out that the individual had lived from around 673 to 482 B.C. While there are many theories as to how the brain stayed intact for so long, one main speculation is that an unknown disease altered the person’s brain proteins before he or she died. Even though there were no methods of artificial preservation techniques used, the way the person was buried was one crucial piece of information. 

According to Axel Petzold, an associate professor at the University College London Queen Square Institute of Neurology and the study’s lead researcher, “The manner of this individual’s death, or subsequent burial, may have enabled the brain’s long-term preservation.” 

In studying the two primary filaments in the brain, also known as the neurofilaments and the glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), Petzold and his team discovered that those filaments were intact. 

Typically, the brain begins to rot after the dead person’s microbiome eats up the tissue, suggesting the enzymes in the environment would’ve played a key part. However, the Heslington brain’s enzymes were destroyed within three months after being tested on. Petzold and his team found that it took an estimated three months to fold themselves into one another if there were no enzymes present in the brain.

Petzold’s guess was that the person most likely died after being struck in the head or neck by hanging or decapitation. Ultimately, the enzymes would decay before or just after the person had died.  He also speculated that acidic fluid had gone into his brain because the filaments were seen in the outer parts of the brain, rather than the inner areas, which suggested something from there invaded the brain, prohibiting the brain from decomposing naturally. 

An extremely beneficial effect from the discovery of the Heslington brain is that it may provide some answers into treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. By running tests, the team found the brain proteins took almost a year to unfold themselves completely. Scientists proposed that “treatments for neurodegenerative diseases that involve protein aggregates may need a more long-term approach than previously thought.”

While the Heslington brain may be the finest preserved brain in the world, it surely isn’t the oldest. In Sweden, researchers found 8,000-year-old brain material inside a human skull. But as the Heslington brain is so well preserved, researchers from all around the world agree that it is one of the greatest anomalies in ancient human brains.

Graphics courtesy of MEDICALNEWSTODAY.COM