Preservation of cell structures in a medieval infant brain: a paleohistological, paleogenetic, radiological and physico-chemical study

Neuroimage. 2010 Apr 15;50(3):893-901. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.01.029. Epub 2010 Jan 18.


Cerebral tissues from archaeological human remains are extremely rare findings. Hereby, we report a multidisciplinary study of a unique case of a left cerebral hemisphere from a 13th century AD child, found in north-western France. The cerebral tissue-reduced by ca. 80% of its original weight-had been fixed in formalin since its discovery. However, it fully retained its gross anatomical characteristics such as sulci, and gyri; the frontal, temporal and occipital lobe as well as grey and white matter could be readily recognised. Neuronal remains near the hippocampus area and Nissl bodies from the motor cortex area were observed (Nissl, Klüver-Barrera staining). Also, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (T1, proton density, ultra short echo time sequences) were feasible. They produced high quality morpho-diagnostic images. Both histological and radiological examinations could not confirm the pathologist's previously suggested diagnosis of cerebral haemorrhage as the cause of death. Reproducible cloned mtDNA sequences were recovered from the skeleton but not from the brain itself. This was most likely due to the combined effect of formaldehyde driven DNA-DNA and/or DNA-protein cross-linking, plus hydrolytic fragmentation of the DNA. The chemical profile of the brain tissue, from gas-chromatography/mass-spectroscopy analysis, suggested adipocerous formation as the main aetiology of the mummification process. The hereby presented child brain is a unique paleo-case of well-preserved neuronal cellular tissue, which is a conditio sine qua non for any subsequent study addressing wider perspectives in neuroscience research, such as the evolution of brain morphology and pathology.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Cerebral Hemorrhage / history
  • Cerebral Hemorrhage / pathology
  • DNA / analysis
  • Fatty Acids / analysis
  • France
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Organ Size
  • Paleopathology
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed


  • Fatty Acids
  • DNA