The human cortical autonomic network and volitional exercise in health and disease
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The autonomic nervous system elicits continuous beat-by-beat homeostatic adjustments to cardiovascular control. These modifications are mediated by sensory inputs (e.g., baroreceptors, metaboreceptors, pulmonary, thermoreceptors, and chemoreceptors afferents), integration at the brainstem control centres (i.e., medulla), and efferent autonomic neural outputs (e.g., spinal, preganglionic, and postganglionic pathways). However, extensive electrical stimulation and functional imaging research show that the brain's higher cortical regions (e.g., insular cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex) partake in homeostatic regulation of the cardiovascular system at rest and during exercise. We now appreciate that these cortical areas form a network, namely the "cortical autonomic network" (CAN), which operate as part of a larger central autonomic network comprising 2-way communication of cortical and subcortical areas to exert autonomic influence. Interestingly, differential patterns of CAN activity and ensuing cardiovascular control are present in disease states, thereby highlighting the importance of considering the role of CAN as an integral aspect of cardiovascular regulation in health and disease. This review discusses current knowledge on human cortical autonomic activation during volitional exercise, and the role of exercise training on this activation in both health and disease.
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