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What is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?

By Toni Henthorn
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a chief subdivision of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the function of body organs, blood vessels, and smooth muscles. Whereas most of the actions of the parasympathetic nervous system are automatic and involuntary, some, such as breathing, work in concert with the conscious mind. Largely considered to be the controlling system when external conditions are calm and normal, the PNS promotes a slower heart beat, a slower respiratory rate, increased perspiration and salivation, smaller pupils, enhanced waste disposal, and sexual arousal. Unlike the other subdivision of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, which mediates the "fight or flight" response, the PNS functions when conditions do not require immediate action in a "digest and rest" response. In a complex homeostatic process, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems act in opposing but concerted ways, much like the accelerator and brakes of an automobile, to keep vital body functions balanced.

All parasympathetic nervous systems consist of spinal and cranial segments. Near the tailbone or sacrum, the PNS originates from the second, third, and fourth sacral nerves, which innervate the pelvic organs. In the brain, the parasympathetic system arises from four of the cranial nerves: the oculomotor nerve, the facial nerve, the glossopharyngeal nerve, and the vagus nerve. All PNS segments consist of sensory components, which carry information to the brain, and motor components, which deliver appropriate feedback to the end organs. Sensory cells monitor blood pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, blood sugar concentrations, and stomach and bowel contents, while motor neurons, grouped into small ganglia close to the target organs, modulate the body's responses to the information collected by the sensory cells.

Acetylcholine is the principal chemical messenger released in the neuronal junctions of the parasympathetic nervous system. Muscarinic receptors, so named because of their sensitivity to muscarine derived from Amanita muscaria mushrooms, are the chief end-receptors of the PNS. The acetylcholine molecules activate the muscarinic receptors in the plasma membranes of nerve cells by connecting to intracellular proteins. Once acetylcholine binds to the proteins, a cascade of events leads to the end-organ response. Scientists have discovered five subtypes of muscarinic receptors, each having a distinct gene.

Dysautonomia refers to dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system where either the sympathetic or the parasympathetic nervous system exerts a disproportionate amount of influence on the body. Viral infections, toxic exposures, trauma, and heredity have all been implicated as causative factors for the condition. Symptoms include aches and pains, fainting spells, fatigue, anxiety attacks, rapid heart rate, and low blood pressure. Examination of dysautonomia patients by physicians typically yields few, if any, objective physical or laboratory findings. There is no widely accepted treatment approach for dysautonomia, and therapeutic attempts are largely directed at mitigating the symptoms, not curing the dysfunction.

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Discussion Comments

By Tufenkian925 — On Mar 03, 2011

@Leonidas226

It would seem that our evolution, or eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, has provided us with a deeper understanding of what we are required to do to live in harmony. This is why humans wear clothes and feel bad about upsetting the societal harmony.

By Leonidas226 — On Mar 03, 2011

The somatic nervous system is the system which controls much of societal functioning and human interaction. We recognize larger overarching morals and ideals which we buttress using logic and enforce using a legal system. This prevents people from behaving like involuntary animals, driven merely by instinct.

By arod2b42 — On Mar 02, 2011

@BioNerd

Translating what we felt and saw at an unconscious level to conscious and logical thoughts can be quite difficult. Our basic mind function of unconscious associative thinking has been there since our childhood and has changed very little in terms of how it processes and understands data, resulting in a milieu of seemingly random information. Our conscious, logical mind, has been trained to put together clear and coherent arguments which seem to add up for us and make associative thinking seem absurd.

By BioNerd — On Feb 28, 2011

When sleeping, the parasympathetic nervous system is most highly active. It controls all the basic functions of sleep and allows the mind to drift into an unconscious state of rest and renewal for the conscious mind. The brain never turns off, but is always working at the unconscious level. When we are fully awake, we are using our conscious mind and may find it difficult to recall things that we experienced at an unconscious level in dreams.

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