Anatomy & Physiology 15 Autonomic Nervous System


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Anatomy & Physiology 15 Autonomic Nervous
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Question: Watch this video ( to learn about physical responses to emotion. The autonomic system, which is important for regulating the homeostasis of the organ systems, is also responsible for our physiological responses to emotions such as fear. The video summarizes the extent of the body's reactions and describes several effects of the autonomic system in response to fear. On the basis of what you have already studied about autonomic function, which effect would you expect to be associated with parasympathetic, rather than sympathetic, activity?


The release of urine in extreme fear. The sympathetic system normally constricts sphincters such as that of the urethra.

Question: Watch this video ( to learn more about adrenaline and the fightor-flight response. When someone is said to have a rush of adrenaline, the image of bungee jumpers or skydivers usually comes to mind. But adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is an important chemical in coordinating the body's fight-or-flight response. In this video, you look inside the physiology of the fight-or-flight response, as envisioned for a firefighter. His body's reaction is the result of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system causing system-wide changes as it prepares for extreme responses. What two changes does adrenaline bring about to help the skeletal muscle response?


The heart rate increases to send more blood to the muscles, and the liver releases stored glucose to fuel the muscles.

Question: Watch this video ( to learn about the pupillary reflexes. The pupillary light reflex involves sensory input through the optic nerve and motor response through the oculomotor nerve to the ciliary ganglion, which projects to the circular fibers of the iris. As shown in this short animation, pupils will constrict to limit the amount of light falling on the retina under bright lighting conditions. What constitutes the afferent and efferent branches of the competing reflex (dilation)?


The optic nerve still carries the afferent input, but the output is from the thoracic spinal cord, through the superior cervical ganglion, to the radial fibers of the iris.

Question: Watch this video ( to learn about the side effects of 3-D movies. As discussed in this video, movies that are shot in 3-D can cause motion sickness, which elicits the autonomic symptoms of nausea and sweating. The disconnection between the perceived motion on the screen and the lack of any change in equilibrium stimulates these symptoms. Why do you think sitting close to the screen or right in the middle of the theater makes motion sickness during a 3-D movie worse?


When the visual field is completely taken up by the movie, the brain is confused by the lack of vestibular stimuli to match the visual stimuli. Sitting to the side, or so that the edges of the screen can be seen, will help by providing a stable visual cue along with the magic of the cinematic experience.

Question: A target effector, such as the heart, receives input from the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. What is the actual difference between the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions at the level of those connections (i.e., at the synapse)?


The postganglionic sympathetic fiber releases norepinephrine, whereas the postganglionic parasympathetic fiber releases acetylcholine. Specific locations in the heart have adrenergic receptors and muscarinic receptors. Which receptors are bound is the signal that determines how the heart responds.

Question: In the context of a lioness hunting on the savannah, why would the sympathetic system not activate the digestive system?


Whereas energy is needed for running away from the threat, blood needs to be sent to the skeletal muscles for oxygen supply. The additional fuel, in the form of carbohydrates, probably wouldn't improve the ability to escape the threat as much as the diversion of oxygen-rich blood would hinder it.

Question: Damage to internal organs will present as pain associated with a particular surface area of the body. Why would something like irritation to the diaphragm, which is between the thoracic and abdominal cavities, feel like pain in the shoulder or neck?


The nerves that carry sensory information from the diaphragm enter the spinal cord in the cervical region where somatic sensory fibers from the shoulder and neck would enter. The brain superimposes this experience onto the sensory homunculus where the somatic nerves are connected.

Question: Watch this video ( to learn more about the nervous system. As described in this video, the nervous system has a way to deal with threats and stress that is separate from the conscious control of the somatic nervous system. The system comes from a time when threats were about survival, but in the modern age, these responses become part of stress and anxiety. This video describes how the autonomic system is only part of the response to threats, or stressors. What other organ system gets involved, and what part of the brain coordinates the two systems for the entire response, including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol?


The endocrine system is also responsible for responses to stress in our lives. The hypothalamus coordinates the autonomic response through projections into the spinal cord and through influence over the pituitary gland, the effective center of the endocrine system.

Question: Horner's syndrome is a condition that presents with changes in one eye, such as pupillary constriction and dropping of eyelids, as well as decreased sweating in the face. Why could a tumor in the thoracic cavity have an effect on these autonomic functions?


Pupillary dilation and sweating, two functions lost in Horner's syndrome, are caused by the sympathetic system. A tumor in the thoracic cavity may interrupt the output of the thoracic ganglia that project to the head and face.

Question: Read this article ( to learn about a teenager who experiences a series of spells that suggest a stroke. He undergoes endless tests and seeks input from multiple doctors. In the end, one expert, one question, and a simple blood pressure cuff answers the question. Why would the heart have to beat faster when the teenager changes his body position from lying down to sitting, and then to standing?


The effect of gravity on circulation means that it is harder to get blood up from the legs as the body takes on a vertical orientation.

Question: Medical practice is paying more attention to the autonomic system in considering disease states. Why would autonomic tone be important in considering cardiovascular disease?


Within the cardiovascular system, different aspects demonstrate variation in autonomic tone. Heart rate is under parasympathetic tone, and blood pressure is under sympathetic tone. Pharmaceuticals that treat cardiovascular disorders may be more effective if they work with the normal state of the autonomic system. Alternatively, some disorders may be exacerbated by autonomic deficits and common therapies might not be as effective.

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Disclaimer:  This course does NOT provide the education or experience needed for the diagnosing or treating any medical condition, all site contents are provided as general information only and should not be taken as medical advice.
Source:  OpenStax College. Anatomy & Physiology, OpenStax-CNX Web site., Jun 11, 2014
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