Parasympathetic Division of the Autonomic Nervous System


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Connections of Parasympathetic Division of the Autonomic Nervous System

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system is named because its central neurons are located on either side of the thoracolumbar region of the spinal cord (para- = “beside” or “near”). The parasympathetic system can also be referred to as the craniosacral system (or outflow) because the preganglionic neurons are located in nuclei of the brain stem and the lateral horn of the sacral spinal cord.

The connections, or “circuits,” of the parasympathetic division are similar to the general layout of the sympathetic division with a few specific differences. The preganglionic fibers from the cranial region travel in cranial nerves, whereas preganglionic fibers from the sacral region travel in spinal nerves. The targets of these fibers are terminal ganglia, which are located near—or even within—the target effector. These ganglia are often referred to as intramural ganglia when they are found within the walls of the target organ. The postganglionic fiber projects from the terminal ganglia a short distance to the target effector, or to the specific target tissue within the organ. Comparing the relative lengths of axons in the parasympathetic system, the preganglionic fibers are long and the postganglionic fibers are short because the ganglia are close to—and sometimes within—the target effectors.

The cranial component of the parasympathetic system is based in particular nuclei of the brain stem. In the midbrain, the Edinger–Westphal nucleus is part of the oculomotor complex, and axons from those neurons travel with the fibers in the oculomotor nerve (cranial nerve III) that innervate the extraocular muscles. The preganglionic parasympathetic fibers within cranial nerve III terminate in the ciliary ganglion, which is located in the posterior orbit. The postganglionic parasympathetic fibers then project to the smooth muscle of the iris to control pupillary size. In the upper medulla, the salivatory nuclei contain neurons with axons that project through the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves to ganglia that control salivary glands. Tear production is influenced by parasympathetic fibers in the facial nerve, which activate a ganglion, and ultimately the lacrimal (tear) gland. Neurons in the dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve and the nucleus ambiguus project through the vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) to the terminal ganglia of the thoracic and abdominal cavities. Parasympathetic preganglionic fibers primarily influence the heart, bronchi, and esophagus in the thoracic cavity and the stomach, liver, pancreas, gall bladder, and small intestine of the abdominal cavity. The postganglionic fibers from the ganglia activated by the vagus nerve are often incorporated into the structure of the organ, such as the mesenteric plexus of the digestive tract organs and the intramural ganglia.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: