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It is now well accepted that the sympathetic nervous system responds to specific afferent stimuli in a unique non-uniform fashion. The means by which the brain transforms the signals from a single type of receptor into an appropriate differential sympathetic output is discussed in this brief review. The detection of and response to venous filling are used for illustration. An expansion of blood volume has been shown in a number of species to increase heart rate reflexly via sympathetic nerves and this effect is primarily an action of volume receptors at the venous–atrial junctions of the heart. Stimulation of these volume receptors also leads to an inhibition of renal sympathetic nerve activity. Thus the reflex response to an increase in plasma volume consists of a distinctive unique pattern of sympathetic activity to maintain fluid balance. This reflex is dependent on neurones in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN). Neurones in the PVN show early gene activation on stimulation of atrial receptors, and a similar differential pattern of cardiac sympathetic excitation and renal inhibition can be evoked by activating PVN neurones. Cardiac atrial afferents selectively cause a PVN GABA neurone-induced inhibition within the PVN of PVN spinally projecting vasopressin-containing neurones that project to renal sympathetic neurones. A lesion of these spinally projecting neurones abolishes the reflex. With regard to the cardiac sympathetics, there is a population of PVN spinally projecting neurones that selectively increase heart rate by the release of oxytocin, a peptide pathway that has no action on renal sympathetic outflow. In heart failure the atrial reflex becomes blunted, and evidence is emerging that there is a downregulation of nitric oxide synthesis and reduced GABA activity in the PVN. How this might give rise to increased sympathetic activity associated with heart failure is briefly discussed.