Cortical control of the autonomic nervous system

Exp Physiol. 2014 Feb;99(2):326-31. doi: 10.1113/expphysiol.2013.075192. Epub 2013 Oct 11.


What is the topic of this review? The pathways in the brain by which visceral information, in particular cardiopulmonary afferents, ascend to the cerebral cortex have been delineated in animal models. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans have confirmed what was known from the animal studies and established the critical sites in the cerebral cortex of humans for autonomic control and the significance of these sites for cognitive emotional function. What advances does it highlight? Stimulation of cardiopulmonary afferents in humans has consistently resulted in activation in the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. It has been shown that individuals who are characterized as cardiovascular responders to mental stress have a different pattern of activity in the cortex related to the cardiac changes. A number of animal studies in the rat and cat have been particularly useful for determining the pathways and the sites in the forebrain and cortex that are responsible for autonomic control. For example, these experiments have demonstrated that there is a viscerotopically organized pathway, with the first site of termination in the nucleus of the solitary tract and with subsequent relays in the parabrachial nucleus and the ventroposterior parvocellular nucleus of the thalamus before final visceral afferent inputs in the insular cortex. Several neuroimaging studies in humans, using cardiopulmonary manipulations, have confirmed the importance of the insular cortex as a site of for visceral afferent inputs. The anterior cingulate cortex has also been implicated in cardiopulmonary control. Both the insular cortex and the infralimbic cortex have been shown to be involved in descending control of the cardiovascular system. Neuroimaging with functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that the cortical autonomic control pathways are different in individuals who are characterized as cardiovascular reactors to mental stress. There is evidence that this alteration in pathways in the cortex may be due to past experiences, including childhood trauma.

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Cardiovascular System / innervation*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Humans