Mammary glands are unique to mammals, with the specific function of synthesizing, secreting, and delivering milk to the newborn. Given this function, it is only during a pregnancy/lactation cycle that the gland reaches a mature developmental state via hormonal influences at the cellular level that effect drastic modifications in the micro- and macro-anatomy of the gland, resulting in remodeling of the gland into a milk-secretory organ. Pubertal and post-pubertal development of the breast in females aids in preparing it to assume a functional state during pregnancy and lactation. Remarkably, this organ has the capacity to regress to a resting state upon cessation of lactation, and then undergo the same cycle of expansion and regression again in subsequent pregnancies during reproductive life. This plasticity suggests tight hormonal regulation, which is paramount for the normal function of the gland. This review presents the current status of knowledge of the normal macro- and micro-anatomy of the human mammary gland and the distinct changes it undergoes during the key developmental stages that characterize it, from embryonic life through to post-menopausal age. In addition, it discusses recent advances in our understanding of the normal function of the breast during lactation, with special reference to breastmilk, its composition, and how it can be utilized as a tool to advance knowledge on normal and aberrant breast development and function. Finally, anatomical and molecular traits associated with aberrant expansion of the breast are discussed to set the basis for future comparisons that may illuminate the origin of breast cancer.
Copyright © 2012 Wiley-Liss, Inc.