In 2008, researchers found a well-preserved human brain in a puddle in a small village in Heslington, 200 miles north of London, according tomedia CNET. Analysis showed that the brain belonged to a middle-aged man who lived between the 7th and 5th centuries BC. The brain has since been preserved in anaerobic clay mud, but why it is so intact remains a mystery.
Researchers have previously discovered well-preserved brain and brain tissue – including deliberately preserved through mummies – but The Islington brain is unique in that it was the only brain preserved from that particular period.
According to a new study published in the journal Journal of the Royal Society Interface, scientists examined the brain at the molecular level to perform a deep search of the folds. Through a series of experiments, the study found more than 800 proteins and was able to prove that they even retained the ability to produce an immune response.
After human death, the brain is particularly prone to decomposition because it contains a lot of fat. Some bacteria drive the decomposition process. Molecules like DNA – which can tell us a lot about the life of a particular fossil – are easily damaged and break down relatively quickly, but proteins are more resilient. They are becoming increasingly important markers, helping archaeologists answer long-term questions about human history.
In the study, scientists believe proteins “tell” a story about well-preserved: they fold themselves into stable “aggregates” and prevent protein degradation. Does this fully describe the preservation of the structure? There may also be several factors that contribute to the extraordinary state of Heslington’s brain.
First of all, it is not intentionally retained – there is no sign of embalming. However, earlier brain studies suggested that the man may have been hanged first, his head separated from his body, and his skull deposited almost immediately in the pit. In this way, cold, low-oxygen soils may help preserve them.
The researchers also looked for any signs of neurological disease in the specimen, but the analysis showed no signs of protein build-up, suggesting that the person had prion disease, such as Kya’s disease or Kourou disease.
The researchers believe the new findings on protein stability will benefit biomarker research, proteomics and archaeology.