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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 00:45 GMT
Secrets hidden in mummies' skulls
Skull of ancient Egyptian British Museum
Skulls of the ancient Egyptians used to spot neurological illness
Scientists have looked at the skulls and paintings of the ancient Egyptians to reveal details about their neurological diseases.

Researchers studied the faces on 200 colour portraits of mummies housed in the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Neurological symptoms and signs are normally evaluated during life

Research authors
The portraits were painted at the beginning of the first millennium and were designed specifically to cover the head of a mummy with the likeness of the dead person.

The scientists took detailed measurements of 32 skulls, including the size and shape of the eye sockets. The skulls, which were excavated at Hawara in northern Egypt, were also examined for ridges left by brain tissue.

Their studies, published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, showed that two of the mummies had Parry-Romberg syndrome, a progressive disease where the side of the face and underlying bones disintegrate. This can lead to epilepsy and migraine.


Three of the skulls also had eyes which pointed inwards, a problem normally linked to abnormalities of the autonomic nervous system. One mummy was found to have had oval eyes (corectopia), which scientists said could point to diabetes mellitus - 24% of diabetic patients have corectopia.

The researchers from the US and Britain said their work had produced some very interesting results.

The team said that even though the Egyptian subjects died about 2,000 years ago, it was still possible to learn a great deal about their illnesses - even those related to the nervous system.

"Neurological symptoms and signs are normally evaluated during life," the team said.

"We show here that, although the patients died about 2,000 years ago, the probability that they had focal epilepsy, hemiplegic migraine, deviation of the visual axes (tropia), corectopia, and autonomic nervous system dysfunction, is very high.

"Thus, clinical paleoneurology is possible without the presence of a living nervous system."

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