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In the central nervous system (CNS), nuclei of the brain stem play a critical role in the integration of peripheral sensory information and the regulation of autonomic output in mammalian physiology. The nucleus tractus solitarius of the brain stem acts as a relay center that receives peripheral sensory input from vagal afferents of the nodose ganglia, integrates information from within the brain stem and higher central centers, and then transmits autonomic efferent output through downstream premotor nuclei, such as the nucleus ambiguus, the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, and the rostral ventral lateral medulla. Although there is mounting evidence that sex and sex hormones modulate autonomic physiology at the level of the CNS, the mechanisms and neurocircuitry involved in producing these functional consequences are poorly understood. Of particular interest in this review is the role of estrogen, progesterone, and 5α-reductase-dependent neurosteroid metabolites of progesterone (e.g., allopregnanolone) in the modulation of neurotransmission within brain-stem autonomic neurocircuits. This review will discuss our understanding of the actions and mechanisms of estrogen, progesterone, and neurosteroids at the cellular level of brain-stem nuclei. Understanding the complex interaction between sex hormones and neural signaling plasticity of the autonomic nervous system is essential to elucidating the role of sex in overall physiology and disease.


Erica L Littlejohn, Stephanie Fedorchak, Carie R Boychuk. Sex-steroid-dependent plasticity of brain-stem autonomic circuits. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology. 2020 Jul 01;319(1):R60-R68

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PMID: 32493037

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