The autonomic brain: an activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis for central processing of autonomic function

J Neurosci. 2013 Jun 19;33(25):10503-11. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1103-13.2013.


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is of paramount importance for daily life. Its regulatory action on respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, and many other systems is controlled by a number of structures in the CNS. While the majority of these nuclei and cortices have been identified in animal models, neuroimaging studies have recently begun to shed light on central autonomic processing in humans. In this study, we used activation likelihood estimation to conduct a meta-analysis of human neuroimaging experiments evaluating central autonomic processing to localize (1) cortical and subcortical areas involved in autonomic processing, (2) potential subsystems for the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the ANS, and (3) potential subsystems for specific ANS responses to different stimuli/tasks. Across all tasks, we identified a set of consistently activated brain regions, comprising left amygdala, right anterior and left posterior insula and midcingulate cortices that form the core of the central autonomic network. While sympathetic-associated regions predominate in executive- and salience-processing networks, parasympathetic regions predominate in the default mode network. Hence, central processing of autonomic function does not simply involve a monolithic network of brain regions, instead showing elements of task and division specificity.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Central Nervous System / physiology
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed, Single-Photon