The autonomic nervous system governs the body's multifaceted internal adaptation to diverse changes in the external environment, a role more complex than is accessible to the methods—and data scales—hitherto used to illuminate its operation. Here we apply generative graphical modelling to large-scale multimodal neuroimaging data encompassing normal and abnormal states to derive a comprehensive hierarchical representation of the autonomic brain. We demonstrate that whereas conventional structural and functional maps identify regions jointly modulated by parasympathetic and sympathetic systems, only graphical analysis discriminates between them, revealing the cardinal roles of the autonomic system to be mediated by high-level distributed interactions. We provide a novel representation of the autonomic system—a multidimensional, generative network—that renders its richness tractable within future models of its function in health and disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)164-179
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Brain function
  • Brain imaging
  • Brain structure
  • Generative networks
  • Heart rate variability
  • Parasympathetic nervous system
  • Sympathetic nervous system


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