Transnasal excerebration surgery in ancient Egypt

Historical vignette

Andrew A. Fanous Department of Neurosurgery, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont; and

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William T. Couldwell Department of Neurosurgery, Clinical Neurosciences Center, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

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 M.D., Ph.D.
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Ancient Egyptians were pioneers in many fields, including medicine and surgery. Our modern knowledge of anatomy, pathology, and surgical techniques stems from discoveries and observations made by Egyptian physicians and embalmers. In the realm of neurosurgery, ancient Egyptians were the first to elucidate cerebral and cranial anatomy, the first to describe evidence for the role of the spinal cord in the transmission of information from the brain to the extremities, and the first to invent surgical techniques such as trepanning and stitching. In addition, the transnasal approach to skull base and intracranial structures was first devised by Egyptian embalmers to excerebrate the cranial vault during mummification. In this historical vignette, the authors examine paleoradiological and other evidence from ancient Egyptian skulls and mummies of all periods, from the Old Kingdom to Greco-Roman Egypt, to shed light on the development of transnasal surgery in this ancient civilization. The authors confirm earlier observations concerning the laterality of this technique, suggesting that ancient Egyptian excerebration techniques penetrated the skull base mostly on the left side. They also suggest that the original technique used to access the skull base in ancient Egypt was a transethmoidal one, which later evolved to follow a transsphenoidal route similar to the one used today to gain access to pituitary lesions.

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