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Functional and chemical anatomy of the afferent vagal system

      Abstract

      The results of neural tracing studies suggest that vagal afferent fibers in cervical and thoracic branches innervate the esophagus, lower airways, heart, aorta, and possibly the thymus, and via abdominal branches the entire gastrointestinal tract, liver, portal vein, billiary system, pancreas, but not the spleen. In addition, vagal afferents innervate numerous thoracic and abdominal paraganglia associated with the vagus nerves. Specific terminal structures such as flower basket terminals, intraganglionic laminar endings and intramuscular arrays have been identified in the various organs and organ compartments, suggesting functional specializations. Electrophysiological recording studies have identified mechano- and chemo-receptors, as well as temperature- and osmo-sensors. In the rat and several other species, mostly polymodal units, while in the cat more specialized units have been reported. Few details of the peripheral transduction cascades and the transmitters for signal propagation in the CNS are known. Glutamate and its various receptors are likely to play an important role at the level of primary afferent signaling to the solitary nucleus. The vagal afferent system is thus in an excellent position to detect immune-related events in the periphery and generate appropriate autonomic, endocrine, and behavioral responses via central reflex pathways. There is also good evidence for a role of vagal afferents in nociception, as manifested by affective-emotional responses such as increased blood pressure and tachycardia, typically associated with the perception of pain, and mediated via central reflex pathways involving the amygdala and other parts of the limbic system. The massive central projections are likely to be responsible for the antiepileptic properties of afferent vagal stimulation in humans. Furthermore, these functions are in line with a general defensive character ascribed to the vagal afferent, paraventricular system in lower vertebrates.

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