Functional organization of autonomic neural pathways

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Abstract

There is now abundant functional and anatomical evidence that autonomic motor pathways represent a highly organized output of the central nervous system. Simplistic notions of antagonistic all-or-none activation of sympathetic or parasympathetic pathways are clearly wrong. Sympathetic or parasympathetic pathways to specific target tissues generally can be activated tonically or phasically, depending on current physiological requirements. For example, at rest, many sympathetic pathways are tonically active, such as those limiting blood flow to the skin, inhibiting gastrointestinal tract motility and secretion, or allowing continence in the urinary bladder. Phasic parasympathetic activity can be seen in lacrimation, salivation or urination. Activity in autonomic motor pathways can be modulated by diverse sensory inputs, including the visual, auditory and vestibular systems, in addition to various functional populations of visceral afferents. Identifying the central pathways responsible for coordinated autonomic activity has made considerable progress, but much more needs to be done.

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