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Fields & Applications Proteomics, Mass Spectrometry, Forensics

Volcanic Vitrification of Brain Matter

Vitrified brain sample extracted from "The Guardian" at Herculaneum

In 2019, Pier Paolo Petrone wrote of evidence supporting the instant vaporization of victims’ bodily fluids when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD in our cover feature, “Stories of the Dead.” Now, further research in Herculaneum has revealed more harrowing consequences of the pyroclastic flow… Vitrified brains.

MS proteomics of atypical glassy material from “The Guardian” of the College of Augustales – an infamous Vesuvius victim with severe thermal damage – identified seven enzymes from the human brain and human hair fatty acids, alongside brain triglycerides. “The vitrification of human tissue indicates extreme temperature exposure followed by rapid cooling,” says Petrone; reflectance analysis of charcoal samples indicate temperatures as high as 520 °C would be required.

“The preservation of ancient brain remains is extremely rare – this is the first discovery of ancient human brain vitrified by extreme heat,” says Petrone.

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  1. Petrone P. et al., NEJM, 382(4) 383-384 (2020). DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1909867

About the Author

Matthew Hallam

I've always wanted a career in which I could practice my creativity, even when I worked on the assembly line in a fish factory. At one time, I channeled this need into dance, drawing, poetry and fiction, and I still do most of these things. But, following completion of my MSc(Res) in Translational Oncology and time working in labs and as a Medical Writer for major pharmaceutical companies, I'm happy to find myself in a career that allows me to combine my creative side with my scientific mind as the Editor of The Analytical Scientist.

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