The periaqueductal gray controls brainstem emotional motor systems including respiration

Prog Brain Res. 2014;209:379-405. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63274-6.00020-5.


Respiration is a motor system essential for the survival of the individual and of the species. Because of its vital significance, studies on respiration often assume that breathing takes place independent of other motor systems. However, motor systems generating vocalization, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, as well as parturition, ejaculation, and defecation encompass abdominal pressure control, which involves changes in the respiratory pattern. The mesencephalic periaqueductal gray (PAG) controls all these motor systems. It determines the level setting of the whole body by means of its very strong projections to the ventromedial medullary tegmentum, but it also controls the cell groups that generate vocalization, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, as well as respiration. For this control, the PAG maintains very strong connections with the nucleus retroambiguus, which enables it to control abdominal and intrathoracic pressure. In this same context, the PAG also runs the pelvic organs, bladder, uterus, prostate, seminal vesicles, and the distal colon and rectum via its projections to the pelvic organ stimulating center and the pelvic floor stimulating center. These cell groups, via long descending projections, have direct control of the parasympathetic motoneurons in the sacral cord as well as of the somatic motoneurons in the nucleus of Onuf, innervating the pelvic floor. Respiration, therefore, is not a motor system that functions by itself, but is strongly regulated by the same systems that also control the other motor output systems.

Keywords: abdominal pressure control; emotional motor system; level-setting systems; mating behavior; micturition; nucleus retroambiguus; parturition; pelvic floor stimulating center; pelvic organ stimulating center; periaqueductal gray; pre-Bötzinger complex; vocalization; vomiting.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Periaqueductal Gray / physiology*
  • Respiration*