The autonomic nervous system (ANS or visceral nervous system or involuntary nervous system) is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a control system functioning largely below the level of consciousness, and controls visceral functions. The ANS affects heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation, micturition (urination), and sexual arousal. Most autonomous functions are involuntary but a number of ANS actions can work alongside some degree of conscious control. Everyday examples include breathing, swallowing, and sexual arousal, and in some cases functions such as heart rate.
Within the brain, the ANS is located in the medulla oblongata in the lower brainstem. The medulla's major ANS functions include respiration (the respiratory control centre, or "rcc"), cardiac regulation (the cardiac control centre, or "ccc"), vasomotor activity (the vasomotor centre or "vmc"), and certain reflex actions (such as coughing, sneezing, vomiting and swallowing). These then subdivide into other areas and are also linked to ANS subsystems and nervous systems external to the brain. The hypothalamus, just above the brain stem, acts as an integrator for autonomic functions, receiving ANS regulatory input from the limbic system to do so.
The ANS is classically divided into two subsystems: the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which operate independently in some functions and interact co-operatively in others. In many cases the two have "opposite" actions where one activates a physiological response and the other inhibits it. An older simplification of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems as "excitory" and "inhibitory" was overturned due to the many exceptions found. A more modern characterisation is that the sympathetic nervous system is a "quick response mobilising system" and the parasympathetic is a "more slowly activated dampening system", but even this has exceptions, such as in sexual arousal and orgasm where both play a role. The enteric nervous system is also sometimes considered part of the autonomic nervous system, and sometimes considered an independent system.
ANS functions can generally be divided into sensory (afferent) and motor (efferent) subsystems. Within both there are inhibitory and excitatory synapses between neurons. Relatively recently, a third subsystem of neurons that have been named 'non-adrenergic and non-cholinergic' neurons (because they use nitric oxide as a neurotransmitter) have been described and found to be integral in autonomic function, particularly in the gut and the lungs.
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