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|Human placenta from just after birth with the umbilical cord in place|
|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 non-mammals with varying levels of development. Note, however, that the homology of such structures in various viviparous organisms is debatable and, in invertebrates such as Arthropoda, is analogous at best.
The word placenta comes from the Latin word for cake, from Greek plakóenta/plakoúnta, accusative of plakóeis/plakoús – πλακόεις, πλακούς, "flat, slab-like", in reference to its round, flat appearance in humans. The classical plural is placentae, but the form placentas is common in modern English and probably has the wider currency at present.
The placenta functions as a fetomaternal organ with two components: the fetal placenta (Chorion frondosum), which develops from the same blastocyst that forms the fetus, and the maternal placenta (Decidua basalis), which develops from the maternal uterine tissue.
In humans, the placenta averages 22 cm (9 inch) in length and 2–2.5 cm (0.8–1 inch) in thickness, with the center being the thickest, and the edges being the thinnest. It typically weighs approximately 500 grams (1 lb). It has a dark reddish-blue or crimson color. It connects to the fetus by an umbilical cord of approximately 55–60 cm (22–24 inch) in length, which contains two umbilical arteries and one umbilical vein. The umbilical cord inserts into the chorionic plate (has an eccentric 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 size varies vastly between different mammalian species.
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 multinucleated continuous cell layer that covers the surface of the placenta. It forms as a result of differentiation and fusion of the underlying cytotrophoblast cells, a process that 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 complete by the end of the first trimester of pregnancy (approximately 12–13 weeks).
In preparation for implantation of the blastocyst, the uterine endometrium undergoes "decidualisation". Spiral arteries in decidua are remodeled so that they become less convoluted and their diameter is increased. The increased diameter and straighter flow path both act to increase maternal blood flow to the placenta. The relatively high pressure as the maternal blood fills intervillous space through these spiral arteries bathes the fetal villi in blood, allowing an exchange of gases to take place. In humans and other hemochorial placentals, the maternal blood comes into direct contact with the fetal chorion, though no fluid is exchanged. As the pressure decreases between pulses, the deoxygenated blood flows back through the endometrial veins.
Maternal blood flow is approximately 600–700 ml/min at term.
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, in turn, branch into cotyledon arteries. In the villi, these vessels eventually branch to form an extensive arterio-capillary-venous system, bringing the fetal blood extremely close to the maternal blood; but no intermingling of fetal and maternal blood occurs ("placental barrier").
Endothelin and prostanoids cause vasoconstriction in placental arteries, while nitric oxide vasodilation. On the other hand, there is no neural vascular regulation, and catecholamines have only little effect.
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 maternal blood supply. Nutrient transfer to the fetus occurs via both active and passive transport. Active transport systems allow significantly different plasma concentrations of various large molecules to be maintained on the maternal and fetal sides of the placental barrier.
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.
IgG antibodies can pass through the human placenta, thereby providing protection to the fetus in utero. This transfer of antibodies begin as early as the 20th week of gestational age, and certainly by the 24th week. This passive immunity lingers for several months after birth, thus providing the newborn with a carbon copy of the mother's long-term humoral immunity to see the infant through the crucial first months of extrauterine life. IgM, however, cannot cross the placenta, which is why some infections acquired during pregnancy can be hazardous for the fetus.
Furthermore, the placenta functions as a selective maternal-fetal barrier against transmission of microbes. However, insufficiency in this function may still cause mother-to-child transmission of infectious diseases.
In humans, aside from serving as the conduit for oxygen and nutrients for fetus, the placenta secretes, from the syncytial layer of chorionic villi, hormones that are important during pregnancy.
hCG also ensures that the corpus luteum continues to secrete progesterone and estrogen. Progesterone is very important during pregnancy because, when its secretion decreases, the endometrial lining will slough off and pregnancy will be lost. hCG suppresses the maternal immunologic response so that placenta is not rejected.
For this purpose, the placenta uses several mechanisms:
However, the Placental barrier is not the sole means to evade the immune system, as foreign foetal cells also persist in the maternal circulation, on the other side of the placental barrier.
Placental expulsion begins as a physiological separation from the wall of the uterus. The period from just after the child is born until just after the placenta is expelled is called the "third stage of labor". The placenta is usually expelled within 15–30 minutes of birth.
Placental expulsion can be managed actively, for example by giving oxytocin via intramuscular injection followed by cord traction to assist in delivering the placenta. Alternatively, it can be managed expectantly, allowing the placenta to be expelled without medical assistance. A Cochrane database study suggests that blood loss and the risk of postpartum bleeding will be reduced in women offered active management of the third stage of labour (needs updating).
The habit is to cut the cord immediately after birth, but allegedly there is no medical reason to do that; on the contrary, it is theorized that not cutting the cord helps the baby in its adaptation to extrauterine life, especially in preterm infants
Numerous pathologies can affect the placenta.
Infections involving the placenta:
The placenta often plays an important role in various cultures, with many societies conducting rituals regarding its disposal. In the Western world, the placenta is most often incinerated.
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. Likewise, the Navajo bury the placenta and umbilical cord at a specially chosen site, particularly if the baby dies during birth. In Cambodia and Costa Rica, burial of the placenta is believed to protect and ensure the health of the baby and the mother. 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.
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; 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. Native Hawaiians believe that the placenta is a part of the baby, and traditionally plant it with a tree that can then grow alongside the child. Various cultures in Indonesia, such as Javanese, believe that the placenta has a spirit and needs to be buried outside the family house.
In some cultures, the placenta is eaten, a practice known as placentophagy. In some eastern cultures, such as China and Hong Kong, the dried placenta (紫河車) is thought to be a healthful restorative and is sometimes used in preparations of traditional Chinese medicine and various health products. The practice of human placentophagy has become a more recent trend in western cultures and is not without controversy and its status as cannibalism is debated.
Picture of freshly delivered placenta and umbilical cord wrapped around Kelly clamps
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