Central control of cardiovascular function during sleep

Alessandro Silvani*, Roger A L Dampney

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

51 Citations (Scopus)


There is increasing evidence that cardiovascular control during sleep is relevant for cardiovascular risk. This evidence warrants increased experimental efforts to understand the physiological mechanisms of such control. This review summarizes current knowledge on autonomic features of sleep states [non-rapid-eye-movement sleep (NREMS) and rapid-eyemovement sleep (REMS)] and proposes some testable hypotheses concerning the underlying neural circuits. The physiological reduction of blood pressure (BP) during the night (BP dipping phenomenon) is mainly caused by generalized cardiovascular deactivation and baroreflex resetting during NREMS, which, in turn, are primarily a consequence of central autonomic commands. Central commands during NREMS may involve the hypothalamic ventrolateral preoptic area, central thermoregulatory and central baroreflex pathways, and command neurons in the pons and midbrain. During REMS, opposing changes in vascular resistance in different regional beds have the net effect of increasing BP compared with that of NREMS. In addition, there are transient increases in BP and baroreflex suppression associated with bursts of brain and skeletal muscle activity during REMS. These effects are also primarily a consequence of central autonomic commands, which may involve the midbrain periaqueductal gray, the sublaterodorsal and peduncular pontine nuclei, and the vestibular and raphe obscurus medullary nuclei. A key role in permitting physiological changes in BP during sleep may be played by orexin peptides released by hypothalamic neurons, which target the postulated neural pathways of central autonomic commands during NREMS and REMS. Experimental verification of these hypotheses may help reveal which central neural pathways and mechanisms are most essential for sleep-related changes in cardiovascular function.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Heart and Circulatory Physiology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Blood pressure
  • Central autonomic commands
  • Heart rate
  • Hypocretins/orexins
  • Sleep
  • Sympathetic nerve activity

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