The carotid sinus baroreceptors are innervated by the sinus nerve of Hering, which is a branch of the glossopharyngeal nerve (IX cranial nerve). The glossopharyngeal nerve synapses in the nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS) located in the medulla of the brainstem. The aortic arch baroreceptors are innervated by the aortic nerve, which then combines with the vagus nerve (X cranial nerve) traveling to the NTS. The NTS modulates the activity of sympathetic and parasympathetic (vagal) neurons in the medulla, which in turn regulate the autonomic control of the heart and blood vessels.
Of these two sites for arterial baroreceptors, the carotid sinus is quantitatively the most important for regulating arterial pressure. The carotid sinus receptors respond to pressures ranging from 60-180 mmHg (Figure 2). Receptors within the aortic arch have a higher threshold pressure and are less sensitive than the carotid sinus receptors. Maximal carotid sinus sensitivity occurs near the normal mean arterial pressure; therefore, very small changes in arterial pressure around this "set point" dramatically alters receptor firing so that autonomic control can be reset in such a way that the arterial pressure remains very near to the set point. This set point changes during exercise, hypertension, and heart failure. The changing set point explains how arterial pressure can remain elevated during exercise or chronic hypertension.
How do the baroreceptors respond to a sudden decrease in arterial pressure and how is cardiovascular function altered? A decrease in arterial pressure (mean, pulse or both) results in decreased baroreceptor firing. The "cardiovascular center" within the medulla responds by increasing sympathetic outflow and decreasing parasympathetic (vagal) outflow. Under normal physiological conditions, baroreceptor firing exerts a tonic inhibitory influence on sympathetic outflow from the medulla. Therefore, acute hypotension results in a disinhibition of sympathetic activity within the medulla, so that sympathetic activity increases. These autonomic changes cause vasoconstriction (increased systemic vascular resistance, SVR), tachycardia and positive inotropy. The latter two changes increase cardiac output. The increases in cardiac output and SVR lead to a partial restoration of arterial pressure.
It is important to note that baroreceptors adapt to chronic changes in arterial pressure. For example, if arterial pressure suddenly falls when a person stands, the baroreceptor firing rate will decrease; however, after a period of time, the firing returns to near normal levels as the receptors adapt to the lower pressure. Therefore, the long-term regulation of arterial pressure requires activation of other mechanisms (primarily hormonal and renal) to maintain normal blood pressure.