Autonomic nervous system

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Autonomic nervous system
Latindivisio autonomica systematis nervosi peripherici
Anatomical terminology
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Autonomic nervous system
Latindivisio autonomica systematis nervosi peripherici
Anatomical terminology

The autonomic nervous system (ANS), also known as the visceral nervous system and involuntary nervous system — is a division of the peripheral nervous system that functions as a control system (largely below the level of consciousness) over the function of internal organs.[1] These functions include influencing heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation, urination, sexual arousal, breathing and swallowing.

Within the brain, the autonomic nervous system is located in the medulla oblongata. Autonomic functions of the medulla include control of respiration, cardiac regulation (the cardiac control center), vasomotor activity (the vasomotor center), and certain reflex actions such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing and vomiting. Those are then subdivided into other areas and are also linked to ANS subsystems and nervous systems external to the brain. The hypothalamus, just above the brain stem, acts as an integrator for autonomic functions, receiving ANS regulatory input from the limbic system to do so.[2]

The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).[3] The sympathetic nervous system is often considered the "fight or flight" system, while the parasympathetic nervous system is often considered the "rest and digest" or "feed and breed" system. In many cases, PSNS and SNS have "opposite" actions where one system activates a physiological response and the other inhibits it. An older simplification of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems as "excitory" and "inhibitory" was overturned due to the many exceptions found. A more modern characterization is that the sympathetic nervous system is a "quick response mobilizing system" and the parasympathetic is a "more slowly activated dampening system", but even this has exceptions, such as in sexual arousal and orgasm, wherein both play a role.[2]

In general, the autonomic nervous system functions can be divided into sensory (afferent) and motor (efferent) subsystems. Within both, there are inhibitory and excitatory synapses between neurons. Relatively recently, a third subsystem of neurons that have been named 'non-adrenergic and non-cholinergic' neurons (because they use nitric oxide as a neurotransmitter) have been described and found to be integral in autonomic function, in particular in the gut and the lungs.[4]

Although the ANS is also known as the visceral nervous system the ANS is only connected with the motor side.[5] Most autonomous functions are involuntary but they can often work in conjunction with the somatic nervous system which provides voluntary control.


Autonomic nervous system, showing splanchnic nerves in middle, and the vagus nerve as "X" in blue. The heart and organs below in list to right are regarded as viscera.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic division emerges from the spinal cord in the the thoracic and lumbar areas, terminating around L2-3. The parasympathetic division has craniosacral “outflow”, meaning that the neurons begin at the cranial nerves (specifically the oculomotor nerve, facial nerve, glossopharyngeal nerve and vagus nerve) and sacral (S2-S4) spinal cord.

The autonomic nervous system is unique in that it requires a sequential two-neuron efferent pathway; the preganglionic neuron must first synapse onto a postganglionic neuron before innervating the target organ. The preganglionic, or first, neuron will begin at the “outflow” and will synapse at the postganglionic, or second, neuron’s cell body. The postganglionic neuron will then synapse at the target organ.

Sympathetic division[edit]

The sympathetic nervous system consists of cells with bodies in the lateral horn of the spinal cord from T1 to L2/3. These cell bodies are "GVE" (general visceral efferent) neurons and are the preganglionic neurons. There are several locations upon which preganglionic neurons can synapse for their postganglionic neurons:

  1. cervical ganglia (3)
  2. thoracic ganglia (12) and rostral lumbar ganglia (2 or 3)
  3. caudal lumbar ganglia and sacral ganglia

These ganglia provide the postganglionic neurons from which innervation of target organs follows. Examples of splanchnic (visceral) nerves are:

These all contain afferent (sensory) nerves as well, known as GVA (general visceral afferent) neurons.

Parasympathetic division[edit]

The parasympathetic nervous system consists of cells with bodies in one of two locations: the brainstem (Cranial Nerves III, VII, IX, X) or the sacral spinal cord (S2, S3, S4). These are the preganglionic neurons, which synapse with postganglionic neurons in these locations:

These ganglia provide the postganglionic neurons from which innervations of target organs follows. Examples are:

Sensory neurons[edit]

Main article: Sensory neuron

The sensory arm is composed of primary visceral sensory neurons found in the peripheral nervous system (PNS), in cranial sensory ganglia: the geniculate, petrosal and nodose ganglia, appended respectively to cranial nerves VII, IX and X. These sensory neurons monitor the levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen and sugar in the blood, arterial pressure and the chemical composition of the stomach and gut content. They also convey the sense of taste and smell, which, unlike most functions of the ANS, is a conscious perception. Blood oxygen and carbon dioxide are in fact directly sensed by the carotid body, a small collection of chemosensors at the bifurcation of the carotid artery, innervated by the petrosal (IXth) ganglion. Primary sensory neurons project (synapse) onto “second order” or relay visceral sensory neurons located in the medulla oblongata, forming the nucleus of the solitary tract (nTS), that integrates all visceral information. The nTS also receives input from a nearby chemosensory center, the area postrema, that detects toxins in the blood and the cerebrospinal fluid and is essential for chemically induced vomiting or conditional taste aversion (the memory that ensures that an animal that has been poisoned by a food never touches it again). All this visceral sensory information constantly and unconsciously modulates the activity of the motor neurons of the ANS.


Autonomic nerves travel to organs throughout the body. Most organs receive parasympathetic supply by the vagus nerve and sympathetic supply by splanchnic nerves. The sensory part of the latter reaches the spinal column at certain spinal segments. Pain in any viscera is perceived as referred pain, more specifically pain from the dermatome corresponding to the spinal segment.[6]

Autonomic nervous supply to organs in the human body edit
OrganNerves[7]Spinal column origin[7]
stomachT6, T7, T8, T9, sometimes T10
duodenumT5, T6, T7, T8, T9, sometimes T10
pancreatic headT8, T9
jejunum and ileumT5, T6, T7, T8, T9
spleenT6, T7, T8
vermiform appendixT10
gallbladder and liverT6, T7, T8, T9
kidneys and uretersT11, T12

Motor neurons[edit]

Main article: Motor neuron

Motor neurons of the autonomic nervous system are found in ‘’autonomic ganglia’’. Those of the parasympathetic branch are located close to the target organ whilst the ganglia of the sympathetic branch are located close to the spinal cord.

The sympathetic ganglia here, are found in two chains: the pre-vertebral and pre-aortic chains. The activity of autonomic ganglionic neurons is modulated by “preganglionic neurons” located in the central nervous system. Preganglionic sympathetic neurons are located in the spinal cord, at the thorax and upper lumbar levels. Preganglionic parasympathetic neurons are found in the medulla oblongata where they form visceral motor nuclei; the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve; the nucleus ambiguus, the salivatory nuclei, and in the sacral region of the spinal cord.


Sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions typically function in opposition to each other. But this opposition is better termed complementary in nature rather than antagonistic. For an analogy, one may think of the sympathetic division as the accelerator and the parasympathetic division as the brake. The sympathetic division typically functions in actions requiring quick responses. The parasympathetic division functions with actions that do not require immediate reaction. The sympathetic system is often considered the "fight or flight" system, while the parasympathetic system is often considered the "rest and digest" or "feed and breed" system.

However, many instances of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity cannot be ascribed to "fight" or "rest" situations. For example, standing up from a reclining or sitting position would entail an unsustainable drop in blood pressure if not for a compensatory increase in the arterial sympathetic tonus. Another example is the constant, second-to-second, modulation of heart rate by sympathetic and parasympathetic influences, as a function of the respiratory cycles. In general, these two systems should be seen as permanently modulating vital functions, in usually antagonistic fashion, to achieve homeostasis. Some typical actions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are listed below.

Sympathetic nervous system[edit]

Promotes a "fight or flight" response, corresponds with arousal and energy generation, and inhibits digestion

Parasympathetic nervous system[edit]

The parasympathetic nervous system has been said to promote a "rest and digest" response, promotes calming of the nerves return to regular function, and enhancing digestion. Functions of nerves within the parasympathetic nervous system include:[citation needed]

Neurotransmitters and pharmacology[edit]

At the effector organs, sympathetic ganglionic neurons release noradrenaline (norepinephrine), along with other cotransmitters such as ATP, to act on adrenergic receptors, with the exception of the sweat glands and the adrenal medulla:

The following table reviews the actions of these neurotransmitters as a function of their receptors.

Circulatory system[edit]


TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
cardiac outputβ1, (β2): increasesM2: decreases
SA node: heart rate (chronotropic)β1, (β2):[8] increasesM2: decreases
Atrial cardiac muscle: contractility (inotropic)β1, (β2):[8] increasesM2: decreases
at AV nodeβ1:
increases conduction
increases cardiac muscle automaticity[8]
decreases conduction
Atrioventricular block[8]
Ventricular cardiac muscleβ1, (β2):
increases contractility (inotropic)
increases cardiac muscle automaticity[8]

Blood vessels[edit]

TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
vascular smooth muscle in generalα1:[5] contracts; β2:[5] relaxesM3: relaxes[8]
renal arteryα1:[9] constricts---
larger coronary arteriesα1 and α2:[10] constricts[8]---
smaller coronary arteriesβ2: dilates[11]---
arteries to visceraα: constricts---
arteries to skinα: constricts---
arteries to brainα1:[12] constricts[8]---
arteries to erectile tissueα1:[13] constrictsM3: dilates
arteries to salivary glandsα: constrictsM3: dilates
hepatic arteryβ2: dilates---
arteries to skeletal muscleβ2: dilates---
Veinsα1 and α2:[14] constricts
β2: dilates


TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
plateletsα2: aggregates---
mast cells - histamineβ2: inhibits---

Respiratory system[edit]

TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
smooth muscles of bronchiolesβ2:[5] relaxes (major contribution)
α1: contracts (minor contribution)
M3:[5] contracts

The bronchioles have no sympathetic innervation, but are instead affected by circulating adrenaline[8]

Visual system[edit]

TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
Pupil dilator muscleα1: Dilates
(causes mydriasis)
Iris sphincter muscle-M3: contracts
(causes miosis)
Ciliary muscleβ2: relaxes
(causes long-range focus)
M3: contracts
(causes short-range focus)

Digestive system[edit]

TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
salivary glands: secretionsβ: stimulates viscous, amylase secretions
α1: stimulates potassium secretions
M3: stimulates watery secretions
lacrimal glands (tears)β: stimulates protein secretion[15]secretion of tears by stimulating muscarinic receptors (M3)
juxtaglomerular apparatus of kidneyβ1:[5] renin secretion---
parietal cells---M1: Gastric acid secretion
liverα1, β2: glycogenolysis, gluconeogenesis---
adipose cellsβ1,[5] β3: stimulates lipolysis---
GI tract (smooth muscle) motilityα1, α2,[16] β2: decreasesM3, (M1):[8] increases
sphincters of GI tractα1,[5] α2,[8] β2: contractsM3:[5] relaxes
glands of GI tractno effect[8]M3: secretes

Endocrine system[edit]

TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
pancreas (islets)α2: decreases insulin secretion from beta cells, increases glucagon secretion from alpha cellsM3:[17][18] increases secretion of both insulin and glucagon.[17][18]
adrenal medullaN (nicotinic ACh receptor): secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine---

Urinary system[edit]

TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
Detrusor urinae muscle of bladder wallβ2,[5] β3:[19] relaxesM3:[5] contracts
internal urethral sphincterα1:[5] contractsM3:[5] relaxes

Reproductive system[edit]

TargetSympathetic (adrenergic)Parasympathetic (muscarinic)
uterusα1: contracts (pregnant[8])
β2: relaxes (non-pregnant[8])
genitaliaα1: contracts (ejaculation)M3: erection

Integumentary system[edit]

TargetSympathetic (muscarinic and adrenergic)Parasympathetic
sweat gland secretionsα1: stimulates (minor contribution)M:[5] stimulates (major contribution)
arrector piliα1: stimulates---

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "autonomic nervous system" at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
  2. ^ a b Allostatic load notebook: Parasympathetic Function - 1999, MacArthur research network, UCSF
  3. ^ Pocock, Gillian (2006). Human Physiology (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 63–64. ISBN 978-0-19-856878-0. 
  4. ^ Belvisi, Maria G.; David Stretton, C.; Yacoub, Magdi; Barnes, Peter J. (1992). "Nitric oxide is the endogenous neurotransmitter of bronchodilator nerves in humans". European Journal of Pharmacology 210 (2): 221–2. doi:10.1016/0014-2999(92)90676-U. PMID 1350993. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Costanzo, Linda S. (2007). Physiology. Hagerstwon, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 37. ISBN 0-7817-7311-3. 
  6. ^ Essential Clinical Anatomy. K.L. Moore & A.M. Agur. Lippincott, 2 ed. 2002. Page 199
  7. ^ a b Unless specified otherwise in the boxes, the source is: Moore, Keith L.; Agur, A. M. R. (2002). Essential Clinical Anatomy (2nd ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-7817-5940-3. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Rang, Dale, Ritter & Moore (2003). Pharmacology 5th ed. Churchill Livingstone. p. 127. ISBN 0-443-07145-4. 
  9. ^ Schmitz, JM; Graham, RM; Sagalowsky, A; Pettinger, WA (1981). "Renal alpha-1 and alpha-2 adrenergic receptors: Biochemical and pharmacological correlations". The Journal of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics 219 (2): 400–6. PMID 6270306. 
  10. ^ Woodman, OL; Vatner, SF (1987). "Coronary vasoconstriction mediated by alpha 1- and alpha 2-adrenoceptors in conscious dogs". The American journal of physiology 253 (2 Pt 2): H388–93. PMID 2887122. 
  11. ^ Rang, H. P. (2003). Pharmacology. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone. p. 270. ISBN 0-443-07145-4. 
  12. ^ Circulation & Lung Physiology I M.A.S.T.E.R. Learning Program, UC Davis School of Medicine
  13. ^ Morton, J S; Daly, C J; Jackson, V M; McGrath, J C (2009). "Α1A-Adrenoceptors mediate contractions to phenylephrine in rabbit penile arteries". British Journal of Pharmacology 150 (1): 112–20. doi:10.1038/sj.bjp.0706956. PMC 2013850. PMID 17115072. 
  14. ^ Elliott, J. (1997). "Alpha-adrenoceptors in equine digital veins: Evidence for the presence of both alpha1 and alpha2-receptors mediating vasoconstriction". Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics 20 (4): 308–17. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2885.1997.00078.x. PMID 9280371. 
  15. ^ Mauduit, P; Herman, G; Rossignol, B (1984). "Protein secretion induced by isoproterenol or pentoxifylline in lacrimal gland: Ca2+ effects". The American journal of physiology 246 (1 Pt 1): C37–44. PMID 6320658. 
  16. ^ Sagrada, A; Fargeas, M J; Bueno, L (1987). "Involvement of alpha-1 and alpha-2 adrenoceptors in the postlaparotomy intestinal motor disturbances in the rat". Gut 28 (8): 955–9. doi:10.1136/gut.28.8.955. PMC 1433140. PMID 2889649. 
  17. ^ a b Poretsky, Leonid (2010). "Parasympathetic Nerves". Principles of diabetes mellitu. New York: Springer. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-387-09840-1. 
  18. ^ a b Duttaroy, A.; Zimliki, C. L.; Gautam, D.; Cui, Y.; Mears, D.; Wess, J. (2004). "Muscarinic Stimulation of Pancreatic Insulin and Glucagon Release is Abolished in M3 Muscarinic Acetylcholine Receptor-Deficient Mice". Diabetes 53 (7): 1714–20. doi:10.2337/diabetes.53.7.1714. PMID 15220195. 
  19. ^ Kullmann, F. A.; Limberg, B. J.; Artim, D. E.; Shah, M.; Downs, T. R.; Contract, D.; Wos, J.; Rosenbaum, J. S.; De Groat, W. C. (2009). "Effects of 3-Adrenergic Receptor Activation on Rat Urinary Bladder Hyperactivity Induced by Ovariectomy". Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 330 (3): 704–17. doi:10.1124/jpet.109.155010. PMC 2729793. PMID 19515967. 

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