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Preserved Nerves

Nerves recovered from a human victim of the Mount Vesuvius eruption 2000 years ago

11 December 2020

Preserved Nerves

This image shows the tendrils (axons) of nerve cells viewed under a powerful electron microscope, revealing the fine details of these delicate structures that are a fraction of the thickness of a human hair. But this is not just any nerve cell. It’s a cell from the brain of a young man who died nearly 2000 years ago in an ancient Roman town called Herculaneum, which was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in CE79. Although the man didn’t survive the blast, the hot ash and gases from the volcano turned some of his remains into glass – a process known as vitrification – perfectly preserving the structure of cells in his brain and spinal cord. These extraordinary cells allow researchers to look back into the past to understand more about the sequence of events at Herculaneum that unfolded as the volcano erupted and gain important insights into the people who lived there.

Written by Kat Arney

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BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences until Jul 2023, it is now run independently by a dedicated team of scientists and writers. The website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biology, and its influence on medicine. The ever-growing archive of more than 4000 research images documents over a decade of progress. Explore the collection and see what you discover. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.

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