The Competing Neurotransmitters

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Activation of the pupillary reflex comes from the amount of light activating the retinal ganglion cells, as sent along the optic nerve. The output of the sympathetic system projects through the superior cervical ganglion, whereas the parasympathetic system originates out of the midbrain and projects through the oculomotor nerve to the ciliary ganglion, which then projects to the iris. The postganglionic fibers of either division release neurotransmitters onto the smooth muscles of the iris to cause changes in the pupillary size. Norepinephrine results in dilation and ACh results in constriction.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The postganglionic fibers of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions both release neurotransmitters that bind to receptors on their targets. Postganglionic sympathetic fibers release norepinephrine, with a minor exception, whereas postganglionic parasympathetic fibers release ACh. For any given target, the difference in which division of the autonomic nervous system is exerting control is just in what chemical binds to its receptors. The target cells will have adrenergic and muscarinic receptors. If norepinephrine is released, it will bind to the adrenergic receptors present on the target cell, and if ACh is released, it will bind to the muscarinic receptors on the target cell.

In the sympathetic system, there are exceptions to this pattern of dual innervation. The postganglionic sympathetic fibers that contact the blood vessels within skeletal muscle and that contact sweat glands do not release norepinephrine, they release ACh. This does not create any problem because there is no parasympathetic input to the sweat glands. Sweat glands have muscarinic receptors and produce and secrete sweat in response to the presence of ACh.

At most of the other targets of the autonomic system, the effector response is based on which neurotransmitter is released and what receptor is present. For example, regions of the heart that establish heart rate are contacted by postganglionic fibers from both systems. If norepinephrine is released onto those cells, it binds to an adrenergic receptor that causes the cells to depolarize faster, and the heart rate increases. If ACh is released onto those cells, it binds to a muscarinic receptor that causes the cells to hyperpolarize so that they cannot reach threshold as easily, and the heart rate slows. Without this parasympathetic input, the heart would work at a rate of approximately 100 beats per minute (bpm). The sympathetic system speeds that up, as it would during exercise, to 120–140 bpm, for example. The parasympathetic system slows it down to the resting heart rate of 60–80 bpm.

Another example is in the control of pupillary size. The afferent branch responds to light hitting the retina. Photoreceptors are activated, and the signal is transferred to the retinal ganglion cells that send an action potential along the optic nerve into the diencephalon. If light levels are low, the sympathetic system sends a signal out through the upper thoracic spinal cord to the superior cervical ganglion of the sympathetic chain. The postganglionic fiber then projects to the iris, where it releases norepinephrine onto the radial fibers of the iris (a smooth muscle). When those fibers contract, the pupil dilates—increasing the amount of light hitting the retina. If light levels are too high, the parasympathetic system sends a signal out from the Eddinger–Westphal nucleus through the oculomotor nerve. This fiber synapses in the ciliary ganglion in the posterior orbit. The postganglionic fiber then projects to the iris, where it releases ACh onto the circular fibers of the iris—another smooth muscle. When those fibers contract, the pupil constricts to limit the amount of light hitting the retina.

In this example, the autonomic system is controlling how much light hits the retina. It is a homeostatic reflex mechanism that keeps the activation of photoreceptors within certain limits. In the context of avoiding a threat like the lioness on the savannah, the sympathetic response for fight or flight will increase pupillary diameter so that more light hits the retina and more visual information is available for running away. Likewise, the parasympathetic response of rest reduces the amount of light reaching the retina, allowing the photoreceptors to cycle through bleaching and be regenerated for further visual perception; this is what the homeostatic process is attempting to maintain.


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: