Functional neuroanatomy of autonomic regulation

Neuroimage. 2009 Sep;47(3):795-803. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.024. Epub 2009 May 14.


Considerable effort has been put into animal studies establishing the sites in the brain that are responsible for control of the autonomic nervous system. These studies relied on an electrophysiological or neurochemical response to the activation of peripheral autonomic receptors or chemical or electrical stimulation of central sites. A large number of excellent reviews summarize the results of these studies. More recently, functional imaging has been used to not only confirm the electrophysiological and anatomical studies in animals, but has allowed a more complete understanding of how the brain responds as a whole for effecting autonomic control. The earliest studies to examine forebrain control during functional imaging utilized tests that involved active participation of the subjects and included maximal inspiration, Valsalva manoeuvre, isometric handgrip and cold compress application. There were a few issues that arose from these studies. First, they involved areas of the brain that included active decision making, they were more prone to inducing movement artefact, and some of these tests could activate noxious regions in the brain in addition to autonomic sites. In fact, this dual modality activation represented a more severe complication for investigators determining nociceptive sites in the brain, since virtually all of their stimuli had concomitant autonomic responses. More recent investigations attempted to resolve these issues with more selective passive and active stimuli. In spite of the very different approaches taken to visceral activation in functional imaging studies, a consistent picture of the key areas involved in autonomic control has emerged.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neuroanatomy* / methods