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Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System

The Department “Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System” is constituted by several teams involved in a historically typical field of the Neuroscience in Marseille, that is the Neural Control of Autonomic Functions.

Classically, the Autonomic Nervous System has been considered simply as a visceral “motor” system, with the parasympathetic and sympathetic efferent pathways activated by reflex signalling, and involving hierarchically organized networks. These concepts have considerably evolved with recent findings showing, for example :
- significant integrative processes both at the periphery, within the visceral sensory terminals and the enteric and ganglionic networks, and centrally within networks in the forebrain, hindbrain and the spinal cord,
- distributive processing in addition to the hierarchical processing,
- new and original neuroplasticity phenomena, particularly in the adult,
- an interesting role of interface between the sensori-motor and cognitive networks and the endocrine and immune systems.

Teams of the Department, which possess a variety of techniques and many experimental approaches, conduct research that is mainly focused on the vagal system, the brainstem, the spinal cord and the prevertebral ganglia. Findings have significantly contributed to the new concepts, particularly in the field of digestive sensori-motility, respiratory network, swallowing and more recently control of food intake. In addition to the basic aspects, research also concerns various clinical domains such as digestive motility disorders, respiratory dysfunctions in several genetic diseases, inflammation, obesity, spinal cord lesions,… Present studies, which are performed through molecular, cellular and integrative approaches, concern particularly :
- the role of the vagal system (sensory vagal fibers, solitary tract nucleus and the dorsal vagal complex of the brainstem) in inflammatory processes and food intake control,
- the role of various neurochemical signalling systems, in particular those involving neurotrophins and endocannabinoïds, in the digestive and respiratory functions,
- several neuroplasticity phenomena, with the involvement of genetic and epigenetic factors during the development of the respiratory network, and the functional flexibility of this network in the adult,
- the possible involvement of neurogenesis, shown to exist in brainstem autonomic networks, in autonomic adaptations,
- the post-lesional plasticity phenomena following spinal cord injury,…

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