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The Central Autonomic Network: Functional Organization, Dysfunction, and Perspective

Mayo Clinic Proceedings
DOI: 10.1016/s0025-6196(12)62272-1
  • Subject Review
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine


The central autonomic network (CAN) is an integral component of an internal regulation system through which the brain controls visceromotor, neuroendocrine, pain, and behavioral responses essential for survival. It includes the insular cortex, amygdala, hypothalamus, periaqueductal gray matter, parabrachial complex, nucleus of the tractus solitarius, and ventrolateral medulla. Inputs to the CAN are multiple, including viscerosensory inputs relayed on the nucleus of the tractus solitarius and humoral inputs relayed through the circumventricular organs. The CAN controls preganglionic sympathetic and parasympathetic, neuroendocrine, respiratory, and sphincter motoneurons. The CAN is characterized by reciprocal interconnections, parallel organization, state-dependent activity, and neurochemical complexity. The insular cortex and amygdala mediate high-order autonomic control, and their involvement in seizures or stroke may produce severe cardiac arrhythmias and other autonomic manifestations. The paraventricular and other hypothalamic nuclei contain mixed neuronal populations that control specific subsets of preganglionic sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons. Hypothalamic autonomic disorders commonly produce hypothermia or hyperthermia. Hyperthermia and autonomic hyperactivity occur in patients with head trauma, hydrocephalus, neuroleptic malignant syndrome, and fatal familial insomnia. In the medulla, the nucleus of the tractus solitarius and ventrolateral medulla contain a network of respiratory, cardiovagal, and vasomotor neurons. Medullary autonomic disorders may cause orthostatic hypotension, paroxysmal hypertension, and sleep apnea. Neurologic catastrophes, such as subarachnoid hemorrhage, may produce cardiac arrhythmias, myocardial injury, hypertension, and pulmonary edema. Multiple system atrophy affects preganglionic autonomic, respiratory, and neuroendocrine outputs. The CAN may be critically involved in panic disorders, essential hypertension, obesity, and other medical conditions.

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