Endocrine System > Thyroid and Parathyroid Glands

Functional Anatomy of the Thyroid and Parathyroid Glands

Thyroid glands are located in the neck, in close approximation to the first part of the trachea. In humans, the thyroid gland has a "butterfly" shape, with two lateral lobes that are connected by a narrow section called the isthmus. Most animals, however, have two separate glands on either side of the trachea. Thyroid glands are brownish-red in color.

Close examination of a thyroid gland will reveal one or more small, light-colored nodules on or protruding from its surface - these are parathyroid glands (meaning "beside the thyroid"). The image to the right shows a canine thyroid gland and one attached parathyroid gland.

The microscopic structure of the thyroid is quite distinctive. Thyroid epithelial cells - the cells responsible for synthesis of thyroid hormones - are arranged in spheres called thyroid follicles. Follicles are filled with colloid, a proteinaceous depot of thyroid hormone precursor. In the low (left) and high-magnification (right) images of a cat thyroid below, follicles are cut in cross section at different levels, appearing as roughly circular forms of varying size. In standard histologic preparations such as these, colloid stains pink.

In addition to thyroid epithelial cells, the thyroid gland houses one other important endocrine cell. Nestled in spaces between thyroid follicles are parafollicular or C cells, which secrete the hormone calcitonin.

The structure of a parathyroid gland is distinctly different from a thyroid gland. The cells that synthesize and secrete parathyroid hormone are arranged in rather dense cords or nests around abundant capillaries. The image below shows a section of a feline parathyroid gland on the left, associated with thyroid gland (note the follicles) on the right.

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