The placenta is the highly specialised organ of pregnancy that supports the normal growth and development of the fetus. Growth and function of the placenta are precisely regulated and coordinated to ensure the exchange of nutrients and waste products between the maternal and fetal circulatory systems operates at maximal efficiency. The main functional units of the placenta are the chorionic villi within which fetal blood is separated by only three or four cell layers (placental membrane) from maternal blood in the surrounding intervillous space. After implantation, trophoblast cells proliferate and differentiate along two pathways described as villous and extravillous. Non-migratory, villous cytotrophoblast cells fuse to form the multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast, which forms the outer epithelial layer of the chorionic villi. It is at the terminal branches of the chorionic villi that the majority of fetal/maternal exchange occurs. Extravillous trophoblast cells migrate into the decidua and remodel uterine arteries. This facilitates blood flow to the placenta via dilated, compliant vessels, unresponsive to maternal vasomotor control. The placenta acts to provide oxygen and nutrients to the fetus, whilst removing carbon dioxide and other waste products. It metabolises a number of substances and can release metabolic products into maternal and/or fetal circulations. The placenta can help to protect the fetus against certain xenobiotic molecules, infections and maternal diseases. In addition, it releases hormones into both the maternal and fetal circulations to affect pregnancy, metabolism, fetal growth, parturition and other functions. Many placental functional changes occur that accommodate the increasing metabolic demands of the developing fetus throughout gestation.
- Chorionic villus