It was proposed some fifty years ago that the visceral and hormonal changes accompanying fear and rage reactions can best be understood as adaptations which prepare an organism to cope with an emergency and specifically to perform the extreme muscular exertion of flight or attack. This is well exemplified by the pattern of cardiovascular response which is characteristic of the alerting stage of these reactions and consists of an increase in cardiac output directed mainly to the skeletal muscles. This group of behavioural responses has been collectively termed the defence reaction. The regions of the hypothalamus and brainstem which organize it have been mapped. They function as a reflex centre for the visceral components of the altering response as well as initiating the behavioural response. So far as the cardiovascular system is concerned, this is a preparatory reflex and not compatible with short-term homeostasis. Indeed, the baroreceptor reflex, which is homeostatic, is strongly inhibited. By contrast, the chemoreceptor reflex is facilitated. The input from peripheral chemoreceptors is itself an alerting stimulus. The visceral alerting response has been studied in most detail in the cat, but there is evidence for the same cardiovascular pattern and an accompanying group of respiratory changes in other mammalian species (rat, rabbit, dog, monkey and man). On the efferent pathway for the cardiovascular response pattern, there is a group of relay neurones near the ventral surface of the caudal medulla, which seem important for the maintenance of arterial blood pressure. The visceral alerting system may therefore be continually engaged to some extent in the awake state, as well as being acutely activated in response to novel, and especially to noxious, stimuli.

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