The Cardiovascular Centers in the Brain

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Neurological regulation of blood pressure and flow depends on the cardiovascular centers located in the medulla oblongata.

This cluster of neurons responds to changes in blood pressure as well as blood concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen ions. The cardiovascular center contains three distinct paired components:

• The cardioaccelerator centers stimulate cardiac function by regulating heart rate and stroke volume via sympathetic stimulation from the cardiac accelerator nerve.

• The cardioinhibitor centers slow cardiac function by decreasing heart rate and stroke volume via parasympathetic stimulation from the vagus nerve.

• The vasomotor centers control vessel tone or contraction of the smooth muscle in the tunica media. Changes in diameter affect peripheral resistance, pressure, and flow, which affect cardiac output. The majority of these neurons act via the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine from sympathetic neurons.

Although each center functions independently, they are not anatomically distinct. There is also a small population of neurons that control vasodilation in the vessels of the brain and skeletal muscles by relaxing the smooth muscle fibers in the vessel tunics. Many of these are cholinergic neurons, that is, they release acetylcholine, which in turn stimulates the vessels’ endothelial cells to release nitric oxide (NO), which causes vasodilation. Others release norepinephrine that binds to β2 receptors. A few neurons release NO directly as a neurotransmitter.

Recall that mild stimulation of the skeletal muscles maintains muscle tone. A similar phenomenon occurs with vascular tone in vessels. As noted earlier, arterioles are normally partially constricted: With maximal stimulation, their radius may be reduced to one-half of the resting state. Full dilation of most arterioles requires that this sympathetic stimulation be suppressed. When it is, an arteriole can expand by as much as 150 percent. Such a significant increase can dramatically affect resistance, pressure, and flow.


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: