Peter Jannetta was a neurosurgery resident when he proposed the neurovascular compression theory. He built upon the astute observations of Dandy, Gardner, and others who, in the era before the operating microscope, had successfully ventured into the posterior fossa. In 1965, Jannetta performed cranial nerve microdissections for dental students and identified the trigeminal portio intermedia. He proposed that preservation of these sensory fibers may avoid complete facial numbness, and together with Robert Rand developed a subtemporal transtentorial approach for selective rhizotomy for trigeminal neuralgia (TN). Such rash surgery, using an operating microscope, was then forbidden at their University of California, Los Angeles center, so they collaborated with John Alksne to perform the first surgery at Harbor General Hospital. Upon visualizing the trigeminal nerve root, Jannetta was surprised to see a pulsating superior cerebellar artery compressing the nerve and said “That’s the cause of the tic.” He also hypothesized that alleviating the observed vascular cross-compression may be curative.
A few months later, while assessing a patient with hemifacial spasm, Jannetta had the epiphany that this was the same disease process as TN, but instead affecting the facial nerve. The patient consented to what would become Jannetta’s first microvascular decompression procedure. The senior faculty members who had forbidden such surgery were away, so the supervising neurosurgeon, Paul Crandall, granted the approval to perform the surgery and assisted. Via a retromastoid approach with the patient in the sitting position and using the operating microscope, Jannetta identified and alleviated the culprit neurovascular compression, with a cure resulting.
Jannetta presented his neurovascular compression theory and operative findings to the neurosurgical patriarchy of the time. Elders of the field were generally not inclined to accept the bold speculations of an untested neurosurgeon, and were often determined to discredit the new “cure” of the old diseases. Over decades of refining his surgical technique, documenting the outcomes, and enduring the skepticism he often faced, Jannetta’s theory and his microvascular decompression procedure withstood critical analysis and have become recognized as one the great discoveries and advances in neurosurgery and medicine.