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Autonomic Nervous System

Autonomic Nervous System

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The autonomic nervous system is divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. In the sympathetic system, the soma of the preganglionic neurons is usually located in the spine while in the parasympathetic system the soma is usually in the brainstem or sacral, at the bottom of the spine. In both systems, the preganglionic neuron releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine into the synapse. Postganglionic neurons of the sympathetic system have somas in a sympathetic ganglion, located next to the spinal cord. Postganglionic neurons of the parasympathetic system have somas in ganglions near the target organ. Postganglionic neurons of the sympathetic system release norepinephrine into the synapse, while postganglionic neurons of the parasympathetic system release acetylcholine or nitric oxide.

In the autonomic nervous system, a preganglionic neuron of the CNS synapses with a postganglionic neuron of the PNS. The postganglionic neuron, in turn, acts on a target organ. Autonomic responses are mediated by the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems, which are antagonistic to one another. The sympathetic system activates the “fight or flight” response, while the parasympathetic system activates the “rest and digest” response.

Which of the following statements is false?

  1. The parasympathetic pathway is responsible for resting the body, while the sympathetic pathway is responsible for preparing for an emergency.
  2. Most preganglionic neurons in the sympathetic pathway originate in the spinal cord.
  3. Slowing of the heartbeat is a parasympathetic response.
  4. Parasympathetic neurons are responsible for releasing norepinephrine on the target organ, while sympathetic neurons are responsible for releasing acetylcholine.

Answer

Parasympathetic neurons are responsible for releasing norepinephrine on the target organ, while sympathetic neurons are responsible for releasing acetylcholine.

The autonomic nervous system serves as the relay between the CNS and the internal organs. It controls the lungs, the heart, smooth muscle, and exocrine and endocrine glands. The autonomic nervous system controls these organs largely without conscious control; it can continuously monitor the conditions of these different systems and implement changes as needed. Signaling to the target tissue usually involves two synapses: a preganglionic neuron (originating in the CNS) synapses to a neuron in a ganglion that, in turn, synapses on the target organ, as illustrated in the figure above. There are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system that often have opposing effects: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response that occurs when an animal encounters a dangerous situation. One way to remember this is to think of the surprise a person feels when encountering a snake (“snake” and “sympathetic” both begin with “s”). Examples of functions controlled by the sympathetic nervous system include an accelerated heart rate and inhibited digestion. These functions help prepare an organism’s body for the physical strain required to escape a potentially dangerous situation or to fend off a predator.

Illustration shows the effects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems on target organs, and the placement of the preganglionic neurons that mediate these effects. The parasympathetic system causes pupils and bronchi to constrict, slows the heart rate, and stimulates salivation, digestion, and bile secretion. Preganglionic neurons that mediate these effects are all located in the brain stem. Preganglionic neurons of the parasympathetic system that are located in the sacral cause the bladder to contract. The sympathetic system causes pupils and bronchi to dilate, increases heart rate, inhibits digestion, stimulates the breakdown of glycogen and the secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline, and inhibits contraction of the bladder. The preganglionic neurons that mediate these effects are all located in the spine.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems often have opposing effects on target organs.

Most preganglionic neurons in the sympathetic nervous system originate in the spinal cord, as illustrated in the figure above. The axons of these neurons release acetylcholine on postganglionic neurons within sympathetic ganglia (the sympathetic ganglia form a chain that extends alongside the spinal cord). The acetylcholine activates the postganglionic neurons. Postganglionic neurons then release norepinephrine onto target organs. As anyone who has ever felt a rush before a big test, speech, or athletic event can attest, the effects of the sympathetic nervous system are quite pervasive.

This is both because one preganglionic neuron synapses on multiple postganglionic neurons, amplifying the effect of the original synapse, and because the adrenal gland also releases norepinephrine (and the closely related hormone epinephrine) into the blood stream. The physiological effects of this norepinephrine release include dilating the trachea and bronchi (making it easier for the animal to breathe), increasing heart rate, and moving blood from the skin to the heart, muscles, and brain (so the animal can think and run). The strength and speed of the sympathetic response helps an organism avoid danger, and scientists have found evidence that it may also increase LTP—allowing the animal to remember the dangerous situation and avoid it in the future.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

While the sympathetic nervous system is activated in stressful situations, the parasympathetic nervous system allows an animal to “rest and digest.” One way to remember this is to think that during a restful situation like a picnic, the parasympathetic nervous system is in control (“picnic” and “parasympathetic” both start with “p”). Parasympathetic preganglionic neurons have cell bodies located in the brainstem and in the sacral (toward the bottom) spinal cord, as shown in the figure above. The axons of the preganglionic neurons release acetylcholine on the postganglionic neurons, which are generally located very near the target organs. Most postganglionic neurons release acetylcholine onto target organs, although some release nitric oxide.

The parasympathetic nervous system resets organ function after the sympathetic nervous system is activated (the common adrenaline dump you feel after a ‘fight-or-flight’ event). Effects of acetylcholine release on target organs include slowing of heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and stimulation of digestion.

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