Development of the sympathetic trunks in human embryos

N. Kruepunga, J.P.J.M. Hikspoors, C.J.M. Hulsman, G.M.C. Mommen, S.E. Kohler, W.H. Lamers*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Web of Science)


Although the development of the sympathetic trunks was first described >100 years ago, the topographic aspect of their development has received relatively little attention. We visualised the sympathetic trunks in human embryos of 4.5-10 weeks post-fertilisation, using Amira 3D-reconstruction and Cinema 4D-remodelling software. Scattered, intensely staining neural crest-derived ganglionic cells that soon formed longitudinal columns were first seen laterally to the dorsal aorta in the cervical and upper thoracic regions of Carnegie stage (CS)14 embryos. Nerve fibres extending from the communicating branches with the spinal cord reached the trunks at CS15-16 and became incorporated randomly between ganglionic cells. After CS18, ganglionic cells became organised as irregular agglomerates (ganglia) on a craniocaudally continuous cord of nerve fibres, with dorsally more ganglionic cells and ventrally more fibres. Accordingly, the trunks assumed a "pearls-on-a-string" appearance, but size and distribution of the pearls were markedly heterogeneous. The change in position of the sympathetic trunks from lateral (para-aortic) to dorsolateral (prevertebral or paravertebral) is a criterion to distinguish the "primary" and "secondary" sympathetic trunks. We investigated the position of the trunks at vertebral levels T2, T7, L1 and S1. During CS14, the trunks occupied a para-aortic position, which changed into a prevertebral position in the cervical and upper thoracic regions during CS15, and in the lower thoracic and lumbar regions during CS18 and CS20, respectively. The thoracic sympathetic trunks continued to move further dorsally and attained a paravertebral position at CS23. The sacral trunks retained their para-aortic and prevertebral position, and converged into a single column in front of the coccyx. Based on our present and earlier morphometric measurements and literature data, we argue that differential growth accounts for the regional differences in position of the sympathetic trunks.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-45
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Anatomy
Issue number1
Early online date27 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


  • ganglionic cells
  • nerve fibres
  • neural crest cells
  • para&#8208
  • aortic
  • vertebral
  • primary and secondary sympathetic trunks

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