Scientists Have Found The World’s Oldest Brain

A 319 million-year-old fossil contains the world's oldest preserved brain.

By Britta DeVore | Published

brain fossil

When it comes to neuroscience and the study of brains, science is continuing to shock us with new discoveries every step of the way. And for their part in unearthing new things about the giant organ that lives in our heads, scientists are also having their minds blown. Such is the case with a recent study in the journal Nature that led scientists to uncover a brain fossil that is thought to be over 319 million years old – a number that would give it bragging rights of being the oldest vertebrate brain ever discovered.

According to CNN, who spoke with researcher Sam Giles of the Natural History Museum in London and is one of the co-scribes of the aforementioned study, the major find will have “big implications” for what’s possible in the continuation of how brains have evolved in fishes. The brain fossil was found inside the noggin of a very early version of a ray-finned fish known as a “coccocephalus wildi.” While the brain lingering inside the fossilized skull was a fresh find, the structure was discovered in a coal mine in England over 100 years ago. 

The group of researchers was eager to further dive into the skull of the fish as it’s the only known sample of such a creature, so they went in for a better look using an updated form of technology and CT scanning. In what Giles referred to as an “unexpected” turn, the CT scan led to the incredible finding of an “unidentified blob,” that, when looked at further, had more to it than initially met the eye. With every scientist now baffled and gazing at the specimen, they began to realize that the space inside the skull held ventricles, filaments, and cranial nerves – a brain fossil.

Research team member, senior author, and University of Michigan paleontologist Matt Friedman commented in a press release that he was utterly shocked at what they had come across. Doing a double take at all the “features” right there in front of him, the scientist says that he was left in disbelief that what he was looking at was a well-preserved brain fossil. Giles remembers the moment similarly, adding that while they were hoping they were looking at a brain, they had to be diligent in their uncovering process to “be certain” that it was the real thing. 

As we now know, it was a perfectly intact brain fossil that they were gawking at. The process behind the fossilization is one of your basic run-of-the-mill actions that see soft tissue being replaced by a variety of minerals. And, while this is a “typical” way for fossils to be created, for the preservation of this caliber to happen, well that’s just more than a one-in-a-million chance. 

While the brain fossil may be tiny, the study states that what it could bring to the table for scientific advancement is rather gargantuan. Another University of Michigan paleontologist wrote that while it’s “superficially unimpressive,” the fossil reveals that many beliefs held by the community on how brains evolve are incorrect and will need “reworking.” Who knows what this major finding could lead to in the future and how we understand the evolution of brains?