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Liver Structure and Function

by Steven K. Herrine, MD

The liver is the most metabolically complex organ. Hepatocytes (liver parenchymal cells) perform the liver’s metabolic functions:

  • Formation and excretion of bile during bilirubin metabolism (see Overview of Bilirubin Metabolism)

  • Regulation of carbohydrate homeostasis

  • Lipid synthesis and secretion of plasma lipoproteins

  • Control of cholesterol metabolism

  • Formation of urea, serum albumin, clotting factors, enzymes, and numerous other proteins

  • Metabolism or detoxification of drugs and other foreign substances

At the cellular level, portal triads consist of adjacent and parallel terminal branches of bile ducts, portal veins, and hepatic arteries that border the hepatocytes (see Figure: Organization of the liver.). Terminal branches of the hepatic veins are in the center of hepatic lobules. Because blood flows from the portal triads past the hepatocytes and drains via vein branches in the center of the lobule, the center of the lobule is the area most susceptible to ischemia.

Organization of the liver.

The liver is organized into lobules around terminal branches of the hepatic vein. Between the lobules are portal triads. Each triad consists of branches of a bile duct, portal vein, and hepatic artery.


Liver disorders can result from a wide variety of insults, including infections, drugs, toxins, ischemia, and autoimmune disorders. Occasionally, liver disorders occur postoperatively (see Postoperative Liver Dysfunction). Most liver disorders cause some degree of hepatocellular injury and necrosis, resulting in various abnormal laboratory test results and, sometimes, symptoms. Symptoms may be due to liver disease itself (eg, jaundice due to acute hepatitis) or to complications of liver disease (eg, acute GI bleeding due to cirrhosis and portal hypertension).

Despite necrosis, the liver can regenerate itself. Even extensive patchy necrosis can resolve completely (eg, in acute viral hepatitis). Incomplete regeneration and fibrosis, however, may result from injury that bridges entire lobules or from less pronounced but ongoing damage.

Specific diseases preferentially affect certain hepatobiliary structures or functions (eg, acute viral hepatitis is primarily manifested by damage to hepatocytes or hepatocellular injury; primary biliary cirrhosis, by impairment of biliary secretion; and cryptogenic cirrhosis, by liver fibrosis and resultant portal venous hypertension). The part of the hepatobiliary system affected determines the symptoms, signs, and laboratory abnormalities (see Testing for Hepatic and Biliary Disorders).Some disorders (eg, severe alcoholic liver disease) affect multiple liver structures, resulting in a combination of patterns of symptoms, signs, and laboratory abnormalities.

The prognosis of serious complications is worse in older adults, who are less able to recover from severe physiologic stresses and to tolerate toxic accumulations.

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