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Placenta Structure And Functions

Discover the remarkable and intricate world of placenta structure and functions, unravelling the secrets behind this vital organ that sustains and nourishes life within the womb.

USMLE Guide: Placenta Structure and Functions


The placenta is a vital organ that develops during pregnancy and plays a crucial role in supporting the growth and development of the fetus. Understanding the structure and functions of the placenta is essential for medical professionals, especially those preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the placenta's structure and functions to assist in exam preparation.

I. Placenta Structure

The placenta is an organ primarily composed of maternal and fetal tissues. It develops from the trophoblast, the outer layer of the blastocyst, and undergoes significant changes throughout pregnancy.

A. Maternal Side

The maternal side of the placenta attaches to the uterine wall and consists of the following components:

  • Decidua basalis: The portion of the endometrium where the placenta attaches.
  • Maternal blood vessels: These vessels supply oxygen and nutrients to the placenta.
  • Maternal blood sinuses: Spaces where maternal blood circulates.

B. Fetal Side

The fetal side of the placenta is in direct contact with the fetus and includes:

  • Chorionic plate: The surface that faces the uterine cavity.
  • Chorionic villi: Finger-like projections that extend from the chorionic plate and contain fetal blood vessels.
  • Umbilical cord: Connects the fetus to the placenta and contains two arteries and one vein.

II. Placenta Functions

The placenta performs several vital functions that are essential for the well-being and development of the fetus.

A. Nutrient and Gas Exchange

The placenta facilitates the exchange of nutrients, oxygen, and waste products between the mother and the fetus. This exchange occurs through the following mechanisms:

  • Maternal blood flows through the sinuses, exchanging oxygen and nutrients with fetal blood in the chorionic villi.
  • Waste products, such as carbon dioxide and urea, pass from fetal blood to maternal blood for elimination.

B. Hormone Production

The placenta produces various hormones that are crucial during pregnancy, including:

  • Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG): Maintains the corpus luteum and stimulates progesterone production to sustain pregnancy.
  • Estrogen and progesterone: Support the development of the uterus and prepare the breasts for lactation.
  • Human placental lactogen (hPL): Stimulates milk production and promotes fetal growth.

C. Immune Protection

The placenta acts as a barrier, protecting the fetus from maternal immune responses. It achieves this through:

  • Syncytiotrophoblast layer: Prevents direct contact between maternal and fetal blood, reducing the risk of immune reactions.
  • Transfer of maternal antibodies: IgG antibodies pass through the placenta, providing passive immunity to the fetus.


Understanding the structure and functions of the placenta is essential for medical professionals, particularly those preparing for the USMLE. This guide has provided a comprehensive overview of the placenta's structure, including the maternal and fetal components. Additionally, it highlighted the placenta's crucial functions, such as nutrient and gas exchange, hormone production, and immune protection. Incorporate this knowledge into your exam preparation to excel in USMLE. Good luck!

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