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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the organization and functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
  • Describe the organization and function of the sensory-somatic nervous system

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is the connection between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. The CNS is like the power plant of the nervous system. It creates the signals that control the functions of the body. The PNS is like the wires that go to individual houses. Without those “wires,” the signals produced by the CNS could not control the body (and the CNS would not be able to receive sensory information from the body either).

The PNS can be broken down into the autonomic nervous system    , which controls bodily functions without conscious control, and the sensory-somatic nervous system    , which transmits sensory information from the skin, muscles, and sensory organs to the CNS and sends motor commands from the CNS to the muscles.

Autonomic nervous system

Art connection

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.

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 [link] . 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.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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