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Autonomic tone

Organ systems are balanced between the input from the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. When something upsets that balance, the homeostatic mechanisms strive to return it to its regular state. For each organ system, there may be more of a sympathetic or parasympathetic tendency to the resting state, which is known as the autonomic tone    of the system. For example, the heart rate was described above. Because the resting heart rate is the result of the parasympathetic system slowing the heart down from its intrinsic rate of 100 bpm, the heart can be said to be in parasympathetic tone.

In a similar fashion, another aspect of the cardiovascular system is primarily under sympathetic control. Blood pressure is partially determined by the contraction of smooth muscle in the walls of blood vessels. These tissues have adrenergic receptors that respond to the release of norepinephrine from postganglionic sympathetic fibers by constricting and increasing blood pressure. The hormones released from the adrenal medulla—epinephrine and norepinephrine—will also bind to these receptors. Those hormones travel through the bloodstream where they can easily interact with the receptors in the vessel walls. The parasympathetic system has no significant input to the systemic blood vessels, so the sympathetic system determines their tone.

There are a limited number of blood vessels that respond to sympathetic input in a different fashion. Blood vessels in skeletal muscle, particularly those in the lower limbs, are more likely to dilate. It does not have an overall effect on blood pressure to alter the tone of the vessels, but rather allows for blood flow to increase for those skeletal muscles that will be active in the fight-or-flight response. The blood vessels that have a parasympathetic projection are limited to those in the erectile tissue of the reproductive organs. Acetylcholine released by these postganglionic parasympathetic fibers cause the vessels to dilate, leading to the engorgement of the erectile tissue.

Homeostatic imbalances

Orthostatic hypotension

Have you ever stood up quickly and felt dizzy for a moment? This is because, for one reason or another, blood is not getting to your brain so it is briefly deprived of oxygen. When you change position from sitting or lying down to standing, your cardiovascular system has to adjust for a new challenge, keeping blood pumping up into the head while gravity is pulling more and more blood down into the legs.

The reason for this is a sympathetic reflex that maintains the output of the heart in response to postural change. When a person stands up, proprioceptors indicate that the body is changing position. A signal goes to the CNS, which then sends a signal to the upper thoracic spinal cord neurons of the sympathetic division. The sympathetic system then causes the heart to beat faster and the blood vessels to constrict. Both changes will make it possible for the cardiovascular system to maintain the rate of blood delivery to the brain. Blood is being pumped superiorly through the internal branch of the carotid arteries into the brain, against the force of gravity. Gravity is not increasing while standing, but blood is more likely to flow down into the legs as they are extended for standing. This sympathetic reflex keeps the brain well oxygenated so that cognitive and other neural processes are not interrupted.

Sometimes this does not work properly. If the sympathetic system cannot increase cardiac output, then blood pressure into the brain will decrease, and a brief neurological loss can be felt. This can be brief, as a slight “wooziness” when standing up too quickly, or a loss of balance and neurological impairment for a period of time. The name for this is orthostatic hypotension, which means that blood pressure goes below the homeostatic set point when standing. It can be the result of standing up faster than the reflex can occur, which may be referred to as a benign “head rush,” or it may be the result of an underlying cause.

There are two basic reasons that orthostatic hypotension can occur. First, blood volume is too low and the sympathetic reflex is not effective. This hypovolemia may be the result of dehydration or medications that affect fluid balance, such as diuretics or vasodilators. Both of these medications are meant to lower blood pressure, which may be necessary in the case of systemic hypertension, and regulation of the medications may alleviate the problem. Sometimes increasing fluid intake or water retention through salt intake can improve the situation.

The second underlying cause of orthostatic hypotension is autonomic failure. There are several disorders that result in compromised sympathetic functions. The disorders range from diabetes to multiple system atrophy (a loss of control over many systems in the body), and addressing the underlying condition can improve the hypotension. For example, with diabetes, peripheral nerve damage can occur, which would affect the postganglionic sympathetic fibers. Getting blood glucose levels under control can improve neurological deficits associated with diabetes.

Chapter review

Autonomic nervous system function is based on the visceral reflex. This reflex is similar to the somatic reflex, but the efferent branch is composed of two neurons. The central neuron projects from the spinal cord or brain stem to synapse on the ganglionic neuron that projects to the effector. The afferent branch of the somatic and visceral reflexes is very similar, as many somatic and special senses activate autonomic responses. However, there are visceral senses that do not form part of conscious perception. If a visceral sensation, such as cardiac pain, is strong enough, it will rise to the level of consciousness. However, the sensory homunculus does not provide a representation of the internal structures to the same degree as the surface of the body, so visceral sensations are often experienced as referred pain, such as feelings of pain in the left shoulder and arm in connection with a heart attack.

The role of visceral reflexes is to maintain a balance of function in the organ systems of the body. The two divisions of the autonomic system each play a role in effecting change, usually in competing directions. The sympathetic system increases heart rate, whereas the parasympathetic system decreases heart rate. The sympathetic system dilates the pupil of the eye, whereas the parasympathetic system constricts the pupil. The competing inputs can contribute to the resting tone of the organ system. Heart rate is normally under parasympathetic tone, whereas blood pressure is normally under sympathetic tone. The heart rate is slowed by the autonomic system at rest, whereas blood vessels retain a slight constriction at rest.

In a few systems of the body, the competing input from the two divisions is not the norm. The sympathetic tone of blood vessels is caused by the lack of parasympathetic input to the systemic circulatory system. Only certain regions receive parasympathetic input that relaxes the smooth muscle wall of the blood vessels. Sweat glands are another example, which only receive input from the sympathetic system.

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.

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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.

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Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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