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The Structure of a Kidney Nephron

Kidney nephrons are the functional units of the kidneys.
There are typically over 10,000 kidney nephrons in each of the two kidneys in the body.

This page follows the diagram of the gross anatomy of the kidney (click on the illustration to the
right for details), and is related to the summary of the blood filtration processes within the kidney.
It includes a simple diagram of a kidney nephron followed by short descriptions of the parts of the
kidney nephron.

Simple Diagram of a Kidney Nephron:

Anatomy: Descriptions of the Parts of a Kidney Nephron:
There are two parts of a kidney nephron: the renal corpuscle, and the renal tubule.

(1) Renal Corpuscle

The renal corpuscle is the part of the kidney nephron in which blood plasma is filtered.
The term "corpuscle" means "tiny" or "small" body. The renal corpuscle of each kidney
nephron has two parts - they are the Glomerulus, which is a network of small blood
vessels called capillaries, and the Bowman's Capsule (also known as the Glomerular
Capsule), which is the double-walled epithelial cup within which the glomerulus is
contained.

Within the glomerulus are glomerular capillaries that are located between the afferent
arteriole bringing blood into the glomerulus and the efferent arteriole draining blood
away from the glomerulus. The (outgoing) efferent arteriole has a smaller diameter than
the (incoming) afferent arteriole. This difference in arteriole diameters helps to raise the
blood pressure in the glomerulus.

The area between the double-walls of the Bowman's Capsule is called the capsular space.
The cells that form the outer edges of the glomerulus form close attachments to the cells
of the inner surface of the Bowman's Capsule. This combination of cells adhered to each
other forms a filtration membrane that enables water and solutes (substances that are
dissolved in the water/blood) to pass through the first wall of the Bowman's Capsule into
the capsular space. This filtration process is helped by the raised blood pressure in the
glomerulus - due to the difference in diameter of the afferent and efferent arterioles.

So to summarise:
In the renal corpuscle blood is forced through the glomerular capillaries at higher
pressure than the pressure at which the blood generally travels around the body (and also
into the kidney itself). Helped by the increased pressure in the glomerular capillaries, a
filtration process occurs in which some blood fluid is forced out of the glomerulus and
into the capsular space of the Bowman's Capsule.

The fluid that is filtered into the Bowman's Capsule is called the glomerular filtrate.
Click here to read more about Glomerular Filtration.

Note: What is special about the glomerular capillaries ? They are the only capillaries in
the body that are located between two arterioles, rather than between an arteriole
(incoming blood supply) and a venule (drainage of blood from the capillary).

(2) Renal Tubule

The renal tubule is the part of the kidney nephron into which the glomerular filtrate
passes after it has reached the Bowman's capsule. The first part of the renal tubule is
called the proximal convoluted tubule (PCT), which is shown on the right-hand side of
the diagram above.

The water and solutes that have passed through the proximal convoluted tubule (PCT)
enter the Loop of Henle, which consists of two portions - first the descending limb of
Henle, then the ascending limb of Henle. In order to pass through the Loop of Henle, the
water (and substances dissolved in it) pass from the renal cortex into the renal medulla,
then back to the renal cortex. When this fluid returns to the renal cortex (via the
ascending limb of Henle) it passes into the distal convoluted tubule (DCT), which is
shown on the left-hand side of the diagram above.

The distal convoluted tubules of many individual kidney nephrons converge onto a single
collecting duct. The fluid that has passed through the distal convoluted tubules is drained
into the collecting duct (far left-hand-side of the diagram above). Many collecting ducts
join together to form several hundred papillary ducts. There are typically about 30
papillary ducts per renal papilla (the renal papillae being the tips of the renal pyramids -
which point towards the centre of the kidney). At each renal papilla the contents of the
papillary ducts drain into the minor calces - the channels through which the fluid passes,
via the major calyx, into the centre of the kidney - called the renal pelvis.

Short descriptions of the parts of the kidney labelled above:

Renal hilus:

The renal hilus is an indentation near to the centre of the concave area of the kidney. This
is the area of the kidney through which the ureter leaves the kidney and the other
structures including blood vessels (illustrated), lymphatic vessels, and nerves enter/leave
the kidney.

Renal capsule:
The renal capsule is a smooth, transparent, fibrous membrane that surrounds, encloses,
and protects the kidney. Each kidney has it's own renal capsule (outer layer), which helps
to maintain the shape of the kidney as well as protecting it from damage.
The renal capsule is itself surrounded by a mass of fatty tissue that also helps to protect
the kidney by damage by cushioning it in cases of impact or sudden movement.

Renal cortex:

The renal cortex is the outer part of the kidney and has a reddish colour (shown as very
pale brown above). It has a smooth texture and is the location of the Bowman's Capsules
and the glomeruli, in addition to the proximal and distal convoluted tubules and their
associated blood supplies (these structures are part of the kidney nephrons - described in
further detail on the page about kidney nephrons).

Renal medulla:

The renal medulla is the inner part of the kidney. "Medulla" means "inner portion". This
area is a striated (striped) red-brown colour.

Renal pyramids:

There are approx. 5 - 18 striated triangular structures called "Renal Pyramids" within the
renal medulla of each kidney. The apperance of striations is due to many straight tubules
and blood vessels within the renal pyramids.

Renal pelvis:

The renal pelvis is the funnel-shaped basin (cavity) that receives the urine drained from
the kidney nephrons via the collecting ducts and then the (larger) papillary ducts..

Renal artery:

The renal vein delivers oxygenated blood to the kidney. This main artery divides into
many smaller branches as it enters the kidney via the renal hilus. These smaller arteries
divide into vessels such as the segmental artery, the interlobar artery, the arcuate artery
and the interlobular artery. These eventually seperate into afferent arterioles, one of which
serves each nephron in the kidney.

Renal vein:

The renal artery receives deoxygenated blood from the peritubular veins within the
kidney. These merge into the interlobular, arcuate, interlobar and segmental veins, which,
in turn, deliver deoxygenated blood to the renal vein, through which it is returned to the
systemic blood circulation system.

Interlobular artery:
The interlobular artery delivers oxygenated blood at high pressure to the glomerular
capillaries.

Interlobular vein:

The interlobular vein receives deoxygenated blood (at lower pressure) that it drains
away from the glomerular filteration units and from the Loops of Henle.

Kidney nephron:

Kidney nephrons are the functional units of the kidneys. That this, it is the kidney
nephrons that actually perform the kidney's main functions. There are approx. a million
nephrons within each kidney. To find out more about these, visit the page about Kidney
Nephrons.

Collecting Duct (Kidney):

The collecting duct labelled in the diagram above is part of the kidney nephron (shown
much enlarged). The distal convoluted tubules* (term explain on the page about kidney
nephrons) of many nephrons empty into a single collecting duct. Many such collecting
ducts unite to drain urine extracted by the kidney into papillary ducts, then into a minor
calyx, then the major calyx (at the centre of the kidney), and finally into the ureter
through which the urine leaves the kidney en-route to the urinary bladder.

Ureter:

The ureter is the structure through which urine is conveyed from the kidney to the
urinary bladder