Squinting mummies point to ancient illnesses

Paris - Portraits and skulls of mummified Egyptians have yielded a remarkable insight into the neurological problems of people who lived 2 000 years ago, indicating they suffered health problems that included epilepsy, migraine and diabetes.

Researchers from the US and Britain looked at 200 "mummy portraits" from the start of the first millennium, exhibited in the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They used 3-D scanning and calipers to measure 32 skulls excavated at Haware, northern Egypt.

Mummy portraits covered the head of mummified corpses, showing the face of that person while he or she was still alive, as part of the practice of preparing the dead for the afterlife.

Stunningly lifelike, these pictures have been acclaimed by experts as among the finest portraiture in art history.

Two of the mummies were found to have Parry-Romberg syndrome, a progressive condition in which the side of the face and the underlying bones disintegrate, causing migraines and epilepsy.

Three had oval eyes, or corectopia - an indicator of diabetes.

Others had an apparent squint, known as tropia, or signs of a facial tick.

"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," the researchers said.

"Clinical paleoneurology is possible without the presence of a living nervous system."

The research was reported on Thursday in the Journal of Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, a publication of the British Medical Association (BMA).

It was carried out by paleontologists from the Natural History Museum and British Museum in London and neurologists from the New Mexico Health Enhancement and Marathon Clinics Research Foundation in Albuquerque and Britain's National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, also in London. - Sapa-AFP

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