The Human Body

Liver

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Liver, largest internal organ of the human body. The liver, which is part of the digestive system, performs more than 500 different functions, all of which are essential to life. Its essential functions include helping the body to digest fats, storing reserves of nutrients, filtering poisons and wastes from the blood, synthesizing a variety of proteins, and regulating the levels of many chemicals found in the bloodstream. The liver is unique among the body’s vital organs in that it can regenerate, or grow back, cells that have been destroyed by some short-term injury or disease. But if the liver is damaged repeatedly over a long period of time, it may undergo irreversible changes that permanently interfere with function.

The human liver is a dark red-brown organ with a soft, spongy texture. It is located at the top of the abdomen, on the right side of the body just below the diaphragm—a sheet of muscle tissue that separates the lungs from the abdominal organs. The lower part of the rib cage covers the liver, protecting it from injury. In a healthy adult, the liver weighs about 1.5 kg (3 lb) and is about 15 cm (6 in) thick.

Despite its many complex functions, the liver is relatively simple in structure. It consists of two main lobes, left and right, which overlap slightly. The right lobe has two smaller lobes attached to it, called the quadrate and caudate lobes.

Each lobe contains many thousands of units called lobules that are the building blocks of the liver. Lobules are six-sided structures each about 1 mm (0.04 in) across. A tiny vein runs through the center of each lobule and eventually drains into the hepatic vein, which carries blood out of the liver. Hundreds of cubed-shaped liver cells, called hepatocytes, are arranged around the lobule's central vein in a radiating pattern. On the outside surface of each lobule are small veins, ducts, and arteries that carry fluids to and from the lobules. As the liver does its work, nutrients are collected, wastes are removed, and chemical substances are released into the body through these vessels.