The autonomic nervous system

Hans J. Ten Donkelaar, Veronika Nĕmcová, Martin Lammens, Sebastiaan Overeem

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


The autonomic nervous system innervates the visceral organs, the glands and the blood vessels. It regulates the internal environment, and it is largely responsible for maintaining normal bodily functions such as respiration, blood pressure and micturition. The peripheral autonomic nervous system consists of two parts, a thoracolumbar or sympathetic and a craniosacral or parasympathetic division, which usually have antagonistic effects (Sect. 12.2). The sympathetic system is organized to mobilize the body for activities, especially in stressful situations (Cannon’s fight or flight), whereas the parasympathetic system in particular stimulates the peristaltic and secretory activities of the gastrointestinal tract (also known as rest and digest response). The peripheral part of the autonomic nervous system includes neurons in the viscera and peripheral ganglia, which are innervated by the lateral horn of the spinal cord and certain brain stem nuclei. Neuronal plexuses in the gastrointestinal tract form the enteric nervous system, which is often viewed as the third component of the autonomic nervous system. Tonically active bulbar centres control vital functions such as blood pressure and respiration. The autonomic centres in the brain stem and spinal cord are reciprocally connected with the central autonomic network (Sect. 12.3), which includes the hypothalamus and several other forebrain (in particular the extended amygdala and the insula) and brain stem structures such as the periaqueductal grey and the parabrachial nucleus. This network is essential for the integration of autonomic, endocrine and somatomotor functions. The peripheral and central autonomic pathways may be affected by many diseases, which cause derangement of autonomic functions as exemplified in several Clinical Cases on disorders of the neural control of blood pressure, breathing and micturition. The English terms of the Terminologia Neuroanatomica are used throughout.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationClinical Neuroanatomy
Subtitle of host publicationBrain Circuitry and Its Disorders
EditorsHans J. ten Donkelaar
Place of PublicationCham
Number of pages42
ISBN (Electronic)9783030418786
ISBN (Print)9783030418779
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jun 2020


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