Central mechanisms regulating coordinated cardiovascular and respiratory function during stress and arousal

Roger A L Dampney*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

111 Citations (Scopus)


Actual or potentially threatening stimuli in the external environment (i.e., psychological stressors) trigger highly coordinated defensive behavioral responses that are accompanied by appropriate autonomic and respiratory changes. As discussed in this review, several brain regions and pathways have major roles in subserving the cardiovascular and respiratory responses to threatening stimuli, which may vary from relatively mild acute arousing stimuli to more prolonged life-threatening stimuli. One key region is the dorsomedial hypothalamus, which receives inputs from the cortex, amygdala, and other forebrain regions and which is critical for generating autonomic, respiratory, and neuroendocrine responses to psychological stressors. Recent studies suggest that the dorsomedial hypothalamus also receives an input from the dorsolateral column in the midbrain periaqueductal gray, which is another key region involved in the integration of stress-evoked cardiorespiratory responses. In addition, it has recently been shown that neurons in the midbrain colliculi can generate highly synchronized autonomic, respiratory, and somatomotor responses to visual, auditory, and somatosensory inputs. These collicular neurons may be part of a subcortical defense system that also includes the basal ganglia and which is well adapted to responding to threats that require an immediate stereotyped response that does not involve the cortex. The basal ganglia/colliculi system is phylogenetically ancient. In contrast, the defense system that includes the dorsomedial hypothalamus and cortex evolved at a later time, and appears to be better adapted to generating appropriate responses to more sustained threatening stimuli that involve cognitive appraisal.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R429-R443
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sept 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Defensive behavior
  • Hypothalamus
  • Midbrain
  • Respiratory activity
  • Sympathetic activity
  • Sympathetic premotor nuclei


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