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Neuroscience For Kids

Autonomic Nervous System

flight vis The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates the functions of our internal organs (the viscera) such as the heart, stomach and intestines. The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system and it also controls some of the muscles within the body. We are often unaware of the ANS because it functions involuntary and reflexively. For example, we do not notice when blood vessels change size or when our heart beats faster. However, some people can be trained to control some functions of the ANS such as heart rate or blood pressure.

runner sleeper The ANS is most important in two situations:

The ANS regulates:

vis -- in the skin (around hair follicles; smooth muscle
-- around blood vessels (smooth muscle)
-- in the eye (the iris; smooth muscle)
-- in the stomach, intestines and bladder (smooth muscle)
-- of the heart (cardiac muscle)

The ANS is divided into three parts:

The Sympathetic Nervous System
sympathetic nervous system

It is a nice, sunny are taking a nice walk in the park. bear Suddenly, an angry bear appears in your path. Do you stay and fight OR do you turn and run away? These are "Fight or Flight" responses. In these types of situations, your sympathetic nervous system is called into action - it uses energy - blood pressure increases, heart beats faster, and digestion slows.

Notice in the picture on the left that the sympathetic nervous system originates in the spinal cord. Specifically, the cell bodies of the first neuron (the preganglionic neuron) are located in the thoracic and lumbar spinal cord. Axons from these neurons project to a chain of ganglia located near the spinal cord. In most cases, this neuron makes a synapse with another neuron (post-ganglionic neuron) in the ganglion. A few preganglionic neurons go to other ganglia outside of the sympathetic chain and synapse there. The post-ganglionic neuron then projects to the "target" - either a muscle or a gland.

Two more facts about the sympathetic nervous system: the synapse in the sympathetic ganglion uses acetylcholine as a neurotransmitter; the synapse of the post-ganglionic neuron with the target organ uses the neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. (Of course, there is one exception: the sympathetic post-ganglionic neuron that terminates on the sweat glands uses acetylcholine.)

The Parasympathetic Nervous System
parasympathetic nervous system

It is a nice, sunny are taking a nice walk in the park. weather This time, however, you decide to relax in comfortable chair that you have brought along. This calls for "Rest and Digest" responses. Now is the time for the parasympathetic nervous to work to save energy. This is when blood pressure can decrease, pulse rate can slow, and digestion can start.

Notice in the picture on the left, that the cell bodies of the parasympathetic nervous system are located in the spinal cord (sacral region) and in the medulla. In the medulla, the cranial nerves III, VII, IX and X form the preganglionic parasympathetic fibers. The preganglionic fiber from the medulla or spinal cord projects to ganglia very close to the target organ and makes a synapse. This synapse uses the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. From this ganglion, the post-ganglionic neuron projects to the target organ and uses acetylcholine again at its terminal.


Autonomic Nervous System

StructureSympathetic StimulationParasympathetic Stimulation
Iris (eye muscle)Pupil dilationPupil constriction
Salivary GlandsSaliva production reducedSaliva production increased
Oral/Nasal MucosaMucus production reducedMucus production increased
HeartHeart rate and force increasedHeart rate and force decreased
LungBronchial muscle relaxedBronchial muscle contracted
StomachPeristalsis reducedGastric juice secreted; motility increased
Small IntestineMotility reducedDigestion increased
Large IntestineMotility reducedSecretions and motility increased
LiverIncreased conversion of
glycogen to glucose
KidneyDecreased urine secretionIncreased urine secretion
Adrenal medullaNorepinephrine and
epinephrine secreted
BladderWall relaxed
Sphincter closed
Wall contracted
Sphincter relaxed

It should be noted that the autonomic nervous system is always working. It is NOT only active during "fight or flight" or "rest and digest" situations. Rather, the autonomic nervous system acts to maintain normal internal functions and works with the somatic nervous system.

The enteric nervous system is a third division of the autonomic nervous system that you do not hear much about. The enteric nervous system is a meshwork of nerve fibers that innervate the viscera (gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, and gall bladder).

try it TRY IT! --> Interactive Word Search Puzzle about the autonomic nervous system.

Copyright © 1996-2020, Eric H. Chudler, University of Washington