Physiology and Pathophysiology of the Autonomic Nervous System

Continuum (Minneap Minn). 2020 Feb;26(1):12-24. doi: 10.1212/CON.0000000000000817.


Purpose of the review: This article reviews the anatomic, functional, and neurochemical organization of the sympathetic and parasympathetic outputs; the effects on target organs; the central mechanisms controlling autonomic function; and the pathophysiologic basis for core symptoms of autonomic failure.

Recent findings: Functional neuroimaging studies have elucidated the areas involved in central control of autonomic function in humans. Optogenetic and other novel approaches in animal experiments have provided new insights into the role of these areas in autonomic control across behavioral states, including stress and the sleep-wake cycle.

Summary: Control of the function of the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous system functions depends on complex interactions at all levels of the neuraxis. Peripheral sympathetic outputs are critical for maintenance of blood pressure, thermoregulation, and response to stress. Parasympathetic reflexes control lacrimation, salivation, pupil response to light, beat-to-beat control of the heart rate, gastrointestinal motility, micturition, and erectile function. The insular cortex, anterior and midcingulate cortex, and amygdala generate autonomic responses to behaviorally relevant stimuli. Several nuclei of the hypothalamus generate coordinated patterns of autonomic responses to internal or social stressors. Several brainstem nuclei participate in integrated control of autonomic function in relationship to respiration and the sleep-wake cycle. Disorders affecting the central or peripheral autonomic pathways, or both, manifest with autonomic failure (including orthostatic hypotension, anhidrosis, gastrointestinal dysmotility, and neurogenic bladder or erectile dysfunction) or autonomic hyperactivity, primary hypertension, tachycardia, and hyperhidrosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans