Exercise-induced neuronal plasticity in central autonomic networks: Role in cardiovascular control

Lisete C. Michelini, Javier E. Stern

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

109 Scopus citations


It is now well established that brain plasticity is an inherent property not only of the developing but also of the adult brain. Numerous beneficial effects of exercise, including improved memory, cognitive function and neuroprotection, have been shown to involve an important neuroplastic component. However, whether major adaptive cardiovascular adjustments during exercise, needed to ensure proper blood perfusion of peripheral tissues, also require brain neuroplasticity, is presently unknown. This review will critically evaluate current knowledge on proposed mechanisms that are likely to underlie the continuous resetting of baroreflex control of heart rate during/after exercise and following exercise training. Accumulating evidence indicates that not only somatosensory afferents (conveyed by skeletal muscle receptors, baroreceptors and/or cardiopulmonary receptors) but also projections arising from central command neurons (in particular, peptidergic hypothalamic pre-autonomic neurons) converge into the nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS) in the dorsal brainstem, to co-ordinate complex cardiovascular adaptations during dynamic exercise. This review focuses in particular on a reciprocally interconnected network between the NTS and the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus (PVN), which is proposed to act as a pivotal anatomical and functional substrate underlying integrative feedforward and feedback cardiovascular adjustments during exercise. Recent findings supporting neuroplastic adaptive changes within the NTS-PVN reciprocal network (e.g. remodelling of afferent inputs, structural and functional neuronal plasticity and changes in neurotransmitter content) will be discussed within the context of their role as important underlying cellular mechanisms supporting the tonic activation and improved efficacy of these central pathways in response to circulatory demand at rest and during exercise, both in sedentary and in trained individuals. We hope this review will stimulate more comprehensive studies aimed at understanding cellular and molecular mechanisms within CNS neuronal networks that contribute to exercise-induced neuroplasticity and cardiovascular adjustments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)947-960
Number of pages14
JournalExperimental Physiology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Physiology (medical)


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