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What A 2,600-Year-Old Brain Taught Us About Proteins, Neurons, And Hungover Epiphanies


Rachael Funnell


Rachael Funnell

Digital Content Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Digital Content Producer

ancient brain tissue

You've found a brain preserved for over 2,000 years – what do you do next? Image courtesy of Dr Axel Petzold

When scientists pulled a 2,600-year-old skull out of a pit in York, UK, in 2008, nobody expected there to still be a brain inside. However, the keen eye of Rachel Cubitt noticed that there was more than just mud lingering inside the decapitated skull as she spotted the tell-tale yellow of ancient brain tissue.

The organ belonged to an Iron Age man who met his end as a sacrifice, receiving around seven blows to the neck until his head rolled away, lost. That was, until York University got their hands on it while excavating on campus at Heslington East


How that same brain came into the hands of Dr Axel Petzold, NHS neurologist from University College London’s Queen Square Institute of Neurology, is a tale of serendipity, facilitated by a radio, a newspaper, and a gripping hangover.

It was the morning after his lab’s Christmas party and “I just couldn’t face life,” Petzold told IFLScience.

“I normally wouldn’t start the day listening to the radio, but I was just sitting there with a coffee slowly getting started and I heard [someone talking about the discovery] and started thinking about it.”

Petzold’s PhD centered around neurofilaments, a protein that contributes to the stability of the brain. “When the [radio] presenter said, 'How could it have been that this brain survived?' I thought, maybe it’s this protein.”

heslington brain
The discovery could have been missed were it not for Rachel Cubitt's keen eye. Images courtesy of Dr Axel Petzold

Officially hooked, Petzold wrote to The Times press office to express that if anyone was wondering, neurofilaments could have a part to play in understanding how an organ that in life has the consistency of cream cheese could withstand the test of time so well.

The move was out of character for Petzold, but it was one that paid off, as by 6 pm on that same hungover day he was connected with Dr Sonia O’Connor, the researcher heading up (pun intended) investigations into the ancient brain.

“When I asked, 'Where is this brain?' they said, 'Oh, it’s in the bucket in the garage,' and I thought, 'No! It’s rotting! It’s been preserved for two and a half thousand years… why’d you leave it in the garage?'"

Petzold was allowed to take a sample of the ancient brain, which has since been stored at minus 80 degrees, the standard for bodily products like blood and cerebrospinal fluid to prevent degradation. During the course of over a decade’s-worth of investigations, Petzold has worked (in his spare time, impressively) as part of a team to learn more about why and how the Heslington brain survived so well.


Amazingly, they did find evidence of structural neurofilament proteins in the 2,600-year-old neural tissue (as published in this study). Neurofilaments are used as a biomarker for brain damage in living patients as they leak from injured neurons and can be detected using microdialysis catheters.

iron age brain
Little did that Iron Age sacrifice know, their brain would (albeit thousands of years later) would become a star. Images courtesy of Dr Axel Petzold

These same catheters detected neurofilaments in the Heslington Brain’s neural tissue – and while they weren’t quite complete, the fact they were there at all was an astonishing find.

The brain was preserved to such a remarkable extent that it was even possible to decipher grey matter from white matter, representing the outer and inner parts of the brain respectively.

As for the big question, “How does a soft brain survive for 2,600 years?” It could be that an answer is on the horizon, but without yet having ascertained the necessary grant, the big reveal will have to wait.


“When we did our research, we gave all our raw data in a repository so people could look at it,” Petzold said. “One person came back with a pretty good idea of what might have happened.”

Despite the obstacles in reaching those final, ground-breaking conclusions, he remains positive that the Heslington Brain will one day get its origin story, even if it takes another ten years.

“I think we are in a position to give that brain a soul and a history, and thereby also stimulate future scientists.”

[H/T: Chemistry World]


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