15: The Autonomic Nervous System
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The autonomic nervous system is often associated with the “fight-or-flight response,” which refers to the preparation of the body to either run away from a threat or to stand and fight in the face of that threat. To suggest what this means, consider the (very unlikely) situation of seeing a lioness hunting out on the savannah. Though this is not a common threat that humans deal with in the modern world, it represents the type of environment in which the human species thrived and adapted. The spread of humans around the world to the present state of the modern age occurred much more quickly than any species would adapt to environmental pressures such as predators. However, the reactions modern humans have in the modern world are based on these prehistoric situations. If your boss is walking down the hallway on Friday afternoon looking for “volunteers” to come in on the weekend, your response is the same as the prehistoric human seeing the lioness running across the savannah: fight or flight.
- 15.0: Prelude to The Autonomic Nervous System
- The autonomic nervous system is not just about responding to threats. Besides the fight-or-flight response, there are the responses referred to as “rest and digest.” If that lioness is successful in her hunting, then she is going to rest from the exertion. Her heart rate will slow. Breathing will return to normal. The digestive system has a big job to do. Much of the function of the autonomic system is based on the connections within an autonomic, or visceral, reflex.
- 15.1: Divisions of the Autonomic Nervous System
- The nervous system can be divided into two functional parts: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic nervous system causes contraction of skeletal muscles. The autonomic nervous system controls cardiac and smooth muscle, as well as glandular tissue. The somatic nervous system is associated with voluntary responses and the autonomic nervous system is associated with involuntary responses.
- 15.2: Autonomic Reflexes and Homeostasis
- The autonomic nervous system regulates organ systems through circuits that resemble the reflexes described in the somatic nervous system. The main difference between the somatic and autonomic systems is in what target tissues are effectors. Somatic responses are solely based on skeletal muscle contraction. The autonomic system, however, targets cardiac and smooth muscle, as well as glandular tissue.
- 15.3: Central Control
- 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.
- 15.4: Drugs that Affect the Autonomic System
- An important way to understand the effects of native neurochemicals in the autonomic system is in considering the effects of pharmaceutical drugs. This can be considered in terms of how drugs change autonomic function. These effects will primarily be based on how drugs act at the receptors of the autonomic system neurochemistry. The signaling molecules of the nervous system interact with proteins in the cell membranes of various target cells.