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Precursor decidua basalis, chorion frondosum

The placenta is an organ that connects the developing fetus to the uterine wall to allow nutrient uptake, waste elimination and gas exchange via the mother's blood supply. Placentas are a defining characteristic of eutherian or "placental" mammals, but are also found in some snakes and lizards with varying levels of development up to mammalian levels[1]. The word placenta comes from the Latin for cake, from Greek plakóenta/plakoúnta, accusative of plakóeis/plakoúsπλακόεις, πλακούς, "flat, slab-like",[2] in reference to its round, flat appearance in humans. Protherial (egg-laying) and metatherial (marsupial) mammals produce a choriovitelline placenta that, while connected to the uterine wall, provides nutrients mainly derived from the egg sac. The placenta develops from the same sperm and egg cells that form the fetus, and functions as a fetomaternal organ with two components, the fetal part (Chorion frondosum), and the maternal part (Decidua basalis).



In humans, the placenta averages 22 cm (9 inch) in length and 2–2.5 cm (0.8–1 inch) in thickness (greatest thickness at the center and become thinner peripherally). It typically weighs approximately 500 grams (1 lb). It has a dark reddish-blue or maroon color. It connects to the fetus by an umbilical cord of approximately 55–60 cm (22–24 inch) in length that contains two arteries and one vein.[3] The umbilical cord inserts into the chorionic plate (has an eccentiric attachment). Vessels branch out over the surface of the placenta and further divide to form a network covered by a thin layer of cells. This results in the formation of villous tree structures. On the maternal side, these villous tree structures are grouped into lobules called cotyledons. In humans the placenta usually has a disc shape but different mammalian species have widely varying shapes.[4]


The placenta begins to develop upon implantation of the blastocyst into the maternal endometrium. The outer layer of the blastocyst becomes the trophoblast which forms the outer layer of the placenta. This outer layer is divided into two further layers: the underlying cytotrophoblast layer and the overlying syncytiotrophoblast layer. The syncytiotrophoblast is a multinucleate continuous cell layer which covers the surface of the placenta. It forms as a result of differentiation and fusion of the underlying cytotrophoblast cells, a process which continues throughout placental development. The syncytiotrophoblast (otherwise known as syncytium), thereby contributes to the barrier function of the placenta.

The placenta grows throughout pregnancy. Development of the maternal blood supply to the placenta is suggested to be complete by the end of the first trimester of pregnancy (approximately 12–13 weeks).

Placental circulation


Maternal placental circulation

In preparation for implantation, the uterine endometrium undergoes 'decidualisation'. Spiral arteries in the decidua are remodelled so that they become less convoluted and their diameter is increased. This increases maternal blood flow to the placenta and also decreases resistance so that shear stress is reduced. The relatively high pressure as the maternal blood enters the intervillous space through these spiral arteries bathes the villi in blood. An exchange of gases takes place. As the pressure decreases, the deoxygenated blood flows back through the endometrial veins.

Maternal blood flow is approx 600–700 ml/min at term.

Fetoplacental circulation

Deoxygenated fetal blood passes through umbilical arteries to the placenta. At the junction of umbilical cord and placenta, the umbilical arteries branch radially to form chorionic arteries. Chorionic arteries also branch before they enter into the villi. In the villi, they form an extensive arteriocapillary venous system, bringing the fetal blood extremely close to the maternal blood; but no intermingling of fetal and maternal blood occurs ("placental barrier"[5]).



The perfusion of the intervillous spaces of the placenta with maternal blood allows the transfer of nutrients and oxygen from the mother to the fetus and the transfer of waste products and carbon dioxide back from the fetus to the mother. Nutrient transfer to the fetus is both actively and passively mediated by proteins called nutrient transporters that are expressed within placental cells.

Adverse pregnancy situations, such as those involving maternal diabetes or obesity, can increase or decrease levels of nutrient transporters in the placenta resulting in overgrowth or restricted growth of the fetus.

Metabolic and endocrine activity

In addition to the transfer of gases and nutrients, the placenta also has metabolic and endocrine activity. It produces, among other hormones, progesterone, which is important in maintaining the pregnancy; somatomammotropin (also known as placental lactogen), which acts to increase the amount of glucose and lipids in the maternal blood; estrogen; relaxin, and beta human chorionic gonadotrophin (beta-hCG). This results in increased transfer of these nutrients to the fetus and is also the main cause of the increased blood sugar levels seen in pregnancy. This hormone (beta-hCG) ensures that progesterone and oestrogen are secreted; progesterone and oestrogen thicken and maintain the uterine lining as well as inhibit the production and release of more eggs. However after about 2 months the placenta takes on the role of producing progesterone and therefore beta-hCG is no longer needed. Beta-hCG is excreted in urine and this is what pregnancy tests detect. It also produces insulin-like growth factors (IGFs).

Cloaking from immune system of mother

The placenta and fetus may be regarded as a foreign allograft inside the mother, and thus must evade from attack by the mother's immune system.

For this purpose, the placenta uses several mechanisms:

However, the placental barrier is not the sole means to evade the immune system, as foreign fetal cells also persist in the maternal circulation, on the other side of the placental barrier.[8]


When the fetus is born, its placenta begins a physiological separation for spontaneous expulsion afterwards (and for this reason is also called the afterbirth). In humans, the umbilical cord is routinely clamped and severed prior to the delivery of the placenta, often within seconds or minutes of birth, a medical protocol known as 'active management of third stage' which has been called into question by advocates of natural birth and 'passive management of third stage'[9] The site of the former umbilical cord attachment in the center of the front of the abdomen is known as the navel, umbilicus, or belly-button.

Modern obstetric practice has decreased maternal death rates enormously. The addition of active management of the third stage of labor is a major contributor towards this. It involves giving oxytocin via IM injection, followed by cord traction to assist in delivering the placenta. Premature cord traction can pull the placenta before it has naturally detached from the uterine wall, resulting in hemorrhage. The BMJ summarized the Cochrane group metanalysis (2000) of the benefits of active third stage as follows:

"One systematic review found that active management of the third stage of labour, consisting of controlled cord traction, early cord clamping plus drainage, and a prophylactic oxytocic agent, reduced postpartum haemorrhage of 500 or 1000 mL or greater and related morbidities including mean blood loss, postpartum haemoglobin less than 9 g/dL, blood transfusion, need for supplemental iron postpartum, and length of third stage of labour. Although active management increased adverse effects such as nausea, vomiting, and headache, one RCT identified by the review found that women were less likely to be dissatisfied when their third stage of labour was actively managed."[1]

Risks of retained placenta include hemorrhage and infection. If the placenta fails to deliver in 30 minutes in a hospital environment, manual extraction may be required if heavy ongoing bleeding occurs, and very rarely a curettage is necessary to ensure that no remnants of the placenta remain (in rare conditions with very adherent placenta (placenta accreta)). However, in birth centers and attended home birth environments, it is common for licensed care providers to wait for the placenta's birth up to 2 hours in some instances.


In most mammalian species, the mother bites through the cord and consumes the placenta, primarily for the benefit of prostaglandin on the uterus after birth. This is known as placentophagy. However, it has been observed in zoology that chimpanzees, with which humans share 94%-99% of genetic material,[10][11] apply themselves to nurturing their offspring, and keep the fetus, cord, and placenta intact until the cord dries and detaches the next day.

Top: Human placenta shown a few minutes after birth. The side shown faces the baby with the umbilical cord top right. The white fringe surrounding the bottom is the remnants of the amniotic sac. Bottom: A different placenta displays side that connects to the uterine wall.

The placenta exists in most mammals and some reptiles. It is probably polyphyletic.


Micrograph of a cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection of the placenta (CMV placentitis). The characteristic large nucleus of a CMV infected cell is seen off-centre at the bottom-right of the image. H&E stain.

Numerous pathologies can affect the placenta.

When the placenta implants too deeply:

Infections involving the placenta:

Use in medicine

Human placenta is increasingly being used in western medicine with even a branch called "placenta pharmacology" being updated regularly.[12]

Cultural practices and beliefs

The placenta often plays an important role in various human cultures, with many societies conducting rituals regarding its disposal. In the Western world, the placenta is most often incinerated.[13]

Some cultures bury the placenta for various reasons. The Māori of New Zealand traditionally bury the placenta from a newborn child to emphasize the relationship between humans and the earth.[14] Similarly, the Navajo bury the placenta and umbilical cord at a specially chosen site,[15] particularly if the baby dies during birth.[16] In Cambodia and Costa Rica, burial of the placenta is believed to protect and ensure the health of the baby and the mother.[17] If a mother dies in childbirth, the Aymara of Bolivia bury the placenta in a secret place so that the mother's spirit will not return to claim her baby's life.[18]

An ad in Hong Kong markets beauty products made with human placenta.

The placenta is believed by some communities to have power over the lives of the baby or its parents. The Kwakiutl of British Columbia bury girls' placentas to give the girl skill in digging clams, and expose boys' placentas to ravens to encourage future prophetic visions. In Turkey, the proper disposal of the placenta and umbilical cord is believed to promote devoutness in the child later in life. In Ukraine, Transylvania, and Japan, interaction with a disposed placenta is thought to influence the parents' future fertility.

Several cultures believe the placenta to be or have been alive, often a relative of the baby. Nepalese think of the placenta as a friend of the baby's; Malaysian Orang Asli regard it as the baby's older sibling. The Ibo of Nigeria consider the placenta the deceased twin of the baby, and conduct full funeral rites for it.[17] Native Hawaiians believe that the placenta is a part of the baby, and traditionally plant it with a tree which can then grow alongside the child.[13]

In some cultures, the placenta is eaten, a practice known as placentophagy. In some eastern cultures, such as China and Hong Kong, the placenta is thought to be healthful and is used in medicine and various health products.[19]

In Western cultures, the consumption of humans or parts thereof by other humans is seen as anthropophagy and may be subject to legal prosecution. However, recent research shows many benefits from placentophagy, and across the nation, this practice is gaining popularity.[citation needed][20]

Additional images

See also


  1. ^ Pough et al. 1992. Herpetology: Third Edition. Pearson Prentice Hall:Pearson Education, Inc., 2002.
  2. ^ Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  3. ^ Examination of the placenta
  4. ^ Placental Structure and Classification
  5. ^ Placental blood circulation
  6. ^ "Placenta 'fools body's defences'". BBC News. 10 November 2007. 
  7. ^ Clark DA, Chaput A, Tutton D (March 1986). "Active suppression of host-vs-graft reaction in pregnant mice. VII. Spontaneous abortion of allogeneic CBA/J x DBA/2 fetuses in the uterus of CBA/J mice correlates with deficient non-T suppressor cell activity". J. Immunol. 136 (5): 1668–75. PMID 2936806. 
  8. ^ Williams Z, Zepf D, Longtine J, et al. (March 2008). "Foreign fetal cells persist in the maternal circulation". Fertil. Steril.. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.02.008. PMID 18384774. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Mary-Claire King, Protein polymorphisms in chimpanzee and human evolution, Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley (1973).
  11. ^ "Humans and Chimps: Close But Not That Close". Scientific American. 19 December 2006. Retrieved 20 December 2006. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b "Why eat a placenta?". BBC. 18 April 2006. Retrieved 8 January 2008. 
  14. ^ Metge, Joan. 2005. "Working in/Playing with three languages: English, Te Reo Maori, and Maori Bod Language." In Sites N.S vol. 2, No 2:83-90.
  15. ^ Francisco, Edna (3 December 2004). "Bridging the Cultural Divide in Medicine". Minority Scientists Network. Retrieved 7 January 2008. 
  16. ^ Shepardson, Mary (1978). "Changes in Navajo Mortuary Practices and Beliefs". American Indian Quarterly. University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved 7 January 2008. 
  17. ^ a b Buckley, Sarah J.. "Placenta Rituals and Folklore from around the World". Mothering. Retrieved 7 January 2008. 
  18. ^ Davenport, Ann (June 2005). "The Love Offer". Johns Hopkins Magazine. Retrieved 7 January 2008. 
  19. ^ Falcao, Ronnie. "Medicinal Uses of the Placenta". Retrieved 25 November 2008. 
  20. ^

External links

  • Additional Human placenta photography [2]

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

PLACENTA (Lat. for a cake), in anatomy, the organ by which the embryo is nourished within the womb of its mother. When the young one is born the placenta and membranes come away as the "afterbirth." In human anatomy the organ is a circular disk about seven or eight inches in diameter and one and a quarter inches in thickness at its centre, while at its margin it is very thin and is continuous with the foetal membranes. It weighs about a pound.

In order to explain the formation of the placenta it is necessary to encroach to some extent on the domain of physiology. Before each menstrual period, during the child-bearing age of a woman, the mucous membrane of the uterus hypertrophies, and, at the period, is cast off and renewed, but if a fertilized ovum reaches the uterus the casting off is postponed until the birth of the child. From the fact that the thickened mucous membrane lining the interior of the uterus is cast off sooner or later, it is spoken of as the "decidua." The fertilized ovum, on reaching the uterus, sinks into and embeds. itself in the already prepared decidua, and, as it enlarges, there is, one part of the decidua lying between it and the uterine wall ("decidua serrotina" or "basalis"), one part stretched over the surface of the enlarging ovum ("decidua reflexa" or "capsularis") and one part lining the rest of the uterus ("decidua vera") (see fig I.).

Decidua basalis.

It is the decidua basalis which is specially interesting in considering the formation of the placenta. That part which is nearest the ovum is called the "stratum compactum," but farther away the uterine glands dilate and give a spongy appearance to the mucous membrane which earns this particular layer the name of "stratum spongiosum." Processes grow out from the surface of the ovum which penetrate thestratum compactum of the decidua basalis and capsularis and push their way into the enlarged maternal blood sinuses; these are the "chorionic villi." Later, the "allantoic" or "abdominal stalk" grows from the mesoderm of the hind end of the embryo into the chorionic villi which enter the decidua basalis, and in this bloodvessels pass which push their way into the maternal blood sinuses. Eventually the original walls of these sinuses, together with the false amnion, disappear, and nothing now separates the maternal from the foetal blood except the delicate walls of the foetal vessels covered by some nucleated noncellular tissue, known as syncytium, derived from the chorionic epithelium, so that the embryo is able to take its supply of oxygen and materials for growth from the blood of its mother and to give up carbonic acid and excretory matters. It is the gradual enlargement of the chorionic villi in the decidua basalis together with the intervillous maternal blood sinuses that forms the placenta; the decidua capsularis and vera eventually become pressed From A. H. Young and A. Robinson, in Cunningham's Text-Book of Anatomy. FIG. I. - Diagram representing a very young human ovum almost immediately after its entrance into the decidua, and whilst the place of its entrance is still covered with a plug of fibrin. The ectoderm has already proliferated and embraced spaces which contain maternal blood and are continuous with the maternal blood-vessels.

Uterine mucosa..

Missing image


Dilated p Unchanged pa Unchanged layer.

Stratum spongiosum. Stratum compactum.

Ectodermal villus enclosing space containing maternal blood.

Cavity which becomes coelom.

Fibrin plug. Decidua vera.

Inner mass (Entoderm) Decidua vera.

Cavity of Uterus.

From A. H. Young and A. Robinson, in Cunningham's Text-Book of Anatomy. FIG 2. - Diagram. Later stage in the development of the placenta, showing the relations of the foetal villi to the placental sinuses, the fusion of the amnion with the inner surface of the chorion, and the thinning of the fused deciduae (capsularis and vera).

together as the embryo enlarges, and then, as pressure continues, atrophy. The allantoic stalk elongates enormously, and in its later stages contains two arteries (umbilical) and only one vein (owing to the obliteration of the right one) embedded in some loose connective tissue known as "Wharton's jelly." At first the stalk of the yolk-sac is quite distinct from this, but later the two structures become bound up together (see fig. 2), after which they are known as the "umbilical cord." A distinction must be made between the allantoic stalkand the allantois; the latter is an entodermal outgrowth from the hind end of the mesodaeum or primitive alimentary canal, which in the human subject only reaches a little way toward the placenta. The allantoic stalk is the mass of mesoderm containing blood-vessels which is pushed in front of the allantois and, as has been shown, reaches and blends with the decidua basalis to form the placenta. For further details see Quain's Anatomy, vol. i. (London, 1908); and, for literature, O. Hertwig's Handbuch der Entwickelungslehre (Jena).

Comparative Anatomy

If the placenta is to be regarded as a close union between the vascular system of the parent and embryo, the condition may be found casually scattered throughout the phylum of the Chordata. In such a very lowly member of the Placenta.

Unchanged layer.

Placental villus.

phylum as Saipa, a placenta is formed, and the embryo is nourished within the body of its parent. In some of the viviparous sharks, e.g. the blue shark (Carcharias), the yolk-sac has ridges which fit into grooves in the wall of the oviduct and allow an interchange of materials between the maternal and foetal blood. This is an example of an "umbilical placenta." In the viviparous blennies (Zoarces viviparus), among the teleostean fishes, two or three hundred young are nourished in the hollow ovary, which develops villi secreting nutritive material. Among the Amphibia the alpine salamander (Salamandra atra) nourishes its young in its oviducts until the gilled stage of development is past, while in the Reptilia the young of a viviparous lizard (Sees chalcides) establish a communication between the yolk-sac anteriorly and the allantois posteriorly, on the one hand, and the walls of the oviduct on the other. In this way both an umbilical and an allantoic placenta are formed.

The mammals are divided into Placentalia and Aplacentalia; in the latter group, to which the monotremes and most marsupials belong, the ova have a great deal of yolk, and the young, born in a very immature condition, finish their development in their mother's pouch; but although these mammals have no allantoic placenta there is an intimate connexion between the walls of the yolk-sac and the uterine mucous membrane, and so an umbilical or omphalic placenta exists. The name Aplacentalia therefore only means that they have no allantoic placenta. Among the Placentalia the umbilical and allantoic placentae sometimes coexist for some time, as in the case of the hedgehog, the bandicoot and the mouse. In most of the lower placental mammals the allantois is much more developed than in man, and the most primitive type of placenta is that in which villi are formed over the whole surface of the chorion projecting into the decidua of the tubular cornu of the uterus. This is known as a "diffuse placenta," and is met with in the pangolin, pig, hippopotamus, camel, chevrotain, horse, rhinoceros, tapir and whale. When the villi are collected into a number of round tufts or cotyledons, as in most ruminants, the type is spoken of as a "cotyledonous placenta," and an intermediate stage between this and the last is found in the giraffe.

In the Carnivora, elephant, procavia (Hyrax) and aard vark (Orycteropus), there is a "zonary-placenta" which forms a girdle round the embryo. In sloths and lemurs the placenta is domeshaped, while in rodents, insectivores and bats, it is a ventral disk or closely applied pair of disks, thus differing from the dorsal disk of the ant-eater, armadillo and higher Primates, which is known as a "metadiscoidal placenta." It will thus be seen that the form of the placenta is not an altogether trustworthy indication of the systemic position of its owner. In the diffuse and cotyledonous placentae the villi do not penetrate very deeply into the decidua, and at birth are simply withdrawn, the decidua being left behind in the uterus, so that these placentae are spoken of as non-deciduate while other kinds are deciduate.

For further details see S. W. W. Turner, Lectures on the Comparative Anatomy of the Placenta (Edinburgh, 1876); A.Robinson, "Mammalian Ova and the Formation of the Placenta," Journ. Anat. and Phys. (1904) xxxviii., 186, 325. For literature up to 1906, R. Wiedersheim's Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrates, translated and adapted by W. N. Parker (London, 1907).

(F. G. P.)

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Simple English

A placenta with umbilical cord attached

The placenta is a temporary organ found in most female mammals while they are pregnant.
The mother's and baby's blood never mixes. That is why the placenta is necessary. It acts as an exchange surface between the mother and baby, and nutrients and oxygen are passed over by diffusion only. If the mother and baby blood mixes, it could be deadly for both the mother and the baby. If the mother is blood type A for example and the blood type of the baby is B, then different type blood will mix and the mother and baby would both die.
The placenta is connected to the fetus by the umbilical cord which is made of blood vessels and connective tissue. When the fetus is delivered, the placenta is delivered afterwards, and is often called the afterbirth.

The placenta has two parts, one of which is genetically and biologically part of the fetus, the other part of the mother. It is implanted in the wall of the uterus, where it receives nutrients and oxygen from the mother's blood and passes out waste. This forms a barrier called the placental barrier, which filters out some substances which could harm the fetus. However, many other substances are not filtered out, including alcohol and some chemicals associated with smoking cigarettes. Several types of viruses may also cross this barrier.


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