The placenta is arguably the most important organ of the body, but paradoxically the most poorly understood. During its transient existence, it performs actions that are later taken on by diverse separate organs, including the lungs, liver, gut, kidneys and endocrine glands. Its principal function is to supply the fetus, and in particular, the fetal brain, with oxygen and nutrients. The placenta is structurally adapted to achieve this, possessing a large surface area for exchange and a thin interhaemal membrane separating the maternal and fetal circulations. In addition, it adopts other strategies that are key to facilitating transfer, including remodelling of the maternal uterine arteries that supply the placenta to ensure optimal perfusion. Furthermore, placental hormones have profound effects on maternal metabolism, initially building up her energy reserves and then releasing these to support fetal growth in later pregnancy and lactation post-natally. Bipedalism has posed unique haemodynamic challenges to the placental circulation, as pressure applied to the vena cava by the pregnant uterus may compromise venous return to the heart. These challenges, along with the immune interactions involved in maternal arterial remodelling, may explain complications of pregnancy that are almost unique to the human, including pre-eclampsia. Such complications may represent a trade-off against the provision for a large fetal brain.
Keywords: fetal growth; placenta; pregnancy.
© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.