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Human Spleen

When Shakespeare's Rosalind describes Cupid as "... conceived of spleen and born of madness ..." in his play As You Like It, she was referring to the spleen as an organ of spirit and courage and of such emotions as mirth, ill humor, and melancholy, and not as the filter and rejuvenator of human blood as anatomists know it. The human spleen is a highly vascular, glandular, and ductless organ (or gland to endocrinologists) situated at the cardiac end of the stomach. The important organ creates lymphocytes for the destruction and recycling of senile red-blood corpuscles (age of about 30 days). Similar functions are carried out by the liver. The spleen also acts as a blood reservoir, supplying blood in emergencies such as a bad cut.

The size and weight (average of 0.44 lbs, ranging between 0.17 to 0.66 pounds) of the adult human spleen varies extremely at different periods of life, in different individuals, and in the same individual under different conditions. With senescence, the dark purple organ not only becomes lighter, it becomes relatively smaller when compared to the rest of the body. During and after digestion, the size of the spleen increases, as it does in well-nourished mammals. However, during infection with malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, the spleen becomes highly enlarged and may weigh as much as 20 pounds.

In young spleens, giant cells exist, that contain multiple nuclei or a single compound nucleus, as well as some nucleated red-blood corpuscles. Splenic cells, large rounded cells that are capable of phagocytosis and that often contain red-blood cells and pigment in their interior, are often observed in the dark reddish-brown soft mass known as the splenic pulp. The pulp is actually a fine reticulum of fibers filled with red blood cells and a larger proportion of lymphocytes. When compared to other organs of the human body, the blood vessels that feed the spleen, particularly the lienal artery, are of remarkably large size. Sometimes smaller accessory spleens (in 10 percent of patients) or a doubled spleen are found during surgery, as are islands of pancreatic tissue within the spleen. However, accessory spleens are more often found within the tail of the pancreas. If it is removed during surgery, perhaps because of cancer, most patients fare well without their spleen. It remains "... one of the most obscure and mysterious corners of the human organism."

Contributing Authors

Cynthia D. Kelly, Thomas J. Fellers and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.



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