Perpetuation of errors in illustrations of cranial nerve anatomy

J Neurosurg 127:192–198, 2017

For more than 230 years, anatomical illustrations have faithfully reproduced the German medical student Thomas Soemmerring’s cranial nerve (CN) arrangement. Virtually all contemporary atlases show the abducens, facial, and vestibulocochlear nerves (CNs VI–VIII) all emerging from the pontomedullary groove, as originally depicted by Soemmerring in 1778.

Direct observation at microsurgery of the cerebellopontine angle reveals that CN VII emerges caudal to the CN VIII root from the lower lateral pons rather than the pontomedullary groove. Additionally, the CN VI root lies in the pontomedullary groove caudal to both CN VII and VIII in the vast majority of cases.

In this high-resolution 3D MRI study, the exit location of CN VI was caudal to the CN VII/VIII complex in 93% of the cases. Clearly, Soemmerring’s rostrocaudal numbering system of CN VI-VII-VIII (abducens-facial-vestibulocochlear CNs) should instead be VIII-VII-VI (vestibulocochlear- facial-abducens CNs). While the inaccuracy of the CN numbering system is of note, what is remarkable is that generations of authors have almost universally chosen to perpetuate this ancient error. No doubt some did this through faithful copying of their predecessors. Others, it could be speculated, chose to depict the CN relationships incorrectly rather than run contrary to long-established dogma.

This study is not advocating that a universally recognized numbering scheme be revised, as this would certainly create confusion. The authors do advocate that future depictions of the anatomical arrangements of the brainstem roots of CNs VI, VII, and VIII ought to reflect actual anatomy, rather than be contorted to conform with the classical CN numbering system.