Physiology of the autonomic nervous system

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Introduction. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is made up of a complex set of neurons and pathways that control the functioning of the different body systems within the organism. Its overall function is that of maintaining a state of homeostasis in the organism and of performing the adaptation responses when faced with changes in the external and internal environment. Methods. The ANS is composed of visceral afferent pathways, integration centres at the brain stem, hypothalamus and cerebral cortex levels, as well as sympathetic and parasympathetic efferent pathways. The efferent pathways innerve the cardiac muscle, the smooth muscle and the exocrine and endocrine glands, while the afferent pathways are arranged in two patterns: oligosynaptic circuits, which mediate reflex adaptation responses of the visceral systems, and complex circuits, with projections to nuclei in the brain stem and the brain, where the information is collected and responses are produced that affect numerous systems. The afferent signals activate or inhibit the efferent components of the ANS by means of reflex pathways, independently of the will. These reflex circuits are also modulated by means of signals from central structures, and constitute a central autonomic neuronal network that integrates somatic, autonomic and affective responses. Conclusion. Dysfunctions of the ANS are possibly due to increases or decreases in autonomic control activity, which can appear because of lesions to the brain, spinal cord or peripheral nerves.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)553-562
JournalRevista de Neurologia
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 16 Sep 2002


  • Autonomic dysfunction
  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Central autonomic network
  • Parasympathetic system
  • Sympathetic system
  • Visceral regulation


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