Brain Circuitry Supporting Multi-Organ Autonomic Outflow in Response to Nausea

Cereb Cortex. 2016 Feb;26(2):485-97. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhu172. Epub 2014 Aug 12.


While autonomic outflow is an important co-factor of nausea physiology, central control of this outflow is poorly understood. We evaluated sympathetic (skin conductance level) and cardiovagal (high-frequency heart rate variability) modulation, collected synchronously with functional MRI (fMRI) data during nauseogenic visual stimulation aimed to induce vection in susceptible individuals. Autonomic data guided analysis of neuroimaging data, using a stimulus-based (analysis windows set by visual stimulation protocol) and percept-based (windows set by subjects' ratings) approach. Increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic modulation was associated with robust and anti-correlated brain activity in response to nausea. Specifically, greater autonomic response was associated with reduced fMRI signal in brain regions such as the insula, suggesting an inhibitory relationship with premotor brainstem nuclei. Interestingly, some sympathetic/parasympathetic specificity was noted. Activity in default mode network and visual motion areas was anti-correlated with parasympathetic outflow at peak nausea. In contrast, lateral prefrontal cortical activity was anti-correlated with sympathetic outflow during recovery, soon after cessation of nauseogenic stimulation. These results suggest divergent central autonomic control for sympathetic and parasympathetic response to nausea. Autonomic outflow and the central autonomic network underlying ANS response to nausea may be an important determinant of overall nausea intensity and, ultimately, a potential therapeutic target.

Keywords: brain–gut interactions; motion sickness; neuroimaging; parasympathetic; sympathetic.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nausea / pathology*
  • Nausea / physiopathology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen