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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the role of higher centers of the brain in autonomic regulation
  • Explain the connection of the hypothalamus to homeostasis
  • Describe the regions of the CNS that link the autonomic system with emotion
  • Describe the pathways important to descending control of the autonomic system

The pupillary light reflex ( [link] ) begins when light hits the retina and causes a signal to travel along the optic nerve. This is visual sensation, because the afferent branch of this reflex is simply sharing the special sense pathway. Bright light hitting the retina leads to the parasympathetic response, through the oculomotor nerve, followed by the postganglionic fiber from the ciliary ganglion, which stimulates the circular fibers of the iris to contract and constrict the pupil. When light hits the retina in one eye, both pupils contract. When that light is removed, both pupils dilate again back to the resting position. When the stimulus is unilateral (presented to only one eye), the response is bilateral (both eyes). The same is not true for somatic reflexes. If you touch a hot radiator, you only pull that arm back, not both. Central control of autonomic reflexes is different than for somatic reflexes. The hypothalamus, along with other CNS locations, controls the autonomic system.

Pupillary reflex pathways

This diagram shows the connections between the different nerves and pathways in the eyes. A hand is shown shining a light on the right eye, and arrows and text callouts indicate the different pathways that are activated.
The pupil is under competing autonomic control in response to light levels hitting the retina. The sympathetic system will dilate the pupil when the retina is not receiving enough light, and the parasympathetic system will constrict the pupil when too much light hits the retina.

Forebrain structures

Autonomic control is based on the visceral reflexes, composed of the afferent and efferent branches. These homeostatic mechanisms are based on the balance between the two divisions of the autonomic system, which results in tone for various organs that is based on the predominant input from the sympathetic or parasympathetic systems. Coordinating that balance requires integration that begins with forebrain structures like the hypothalamus and continues into the brain stem and spinal cord.

The hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is the control center for many homeostatic mechanisms. It regulates both autonomic function and endocrine function. The roles it plays in the pupillary reflexes demonstrates the importance of this control center. The optic nerve projects primarily to the thalamus, which is the necessary relay to the occipital cortex for conscious visual perception. Another projection of the optic nerve, however, goes to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus then uses this visual system input to drive the pupillary reflexes. If the retina is activated by high levels of light, the hypothalamus stimulates the parasympathetic response. If the optic nerve message shows that low levels of light are falling on the retina, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic response. Output from the hypothalamus follows two main tracts, the dorsal longitudinal fasciculus    and the medial forebrain bundle    ( [link] ). Along these two tracts, the hypothalamus can influence the Eddinger–Westphal nucleus of the oculomotor complex or the lateral horns of the thoracic spinal cord.

Questions & Answers

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Insulin, which helps to regulate our blood sugar levels.
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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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