mammary gland, organ of the female mammal that produces and secretes milk for the nourishment of the young. A mammal may have from 1 to 11 pairs of mammary glands, depending on the species. Generally, those mammals that bear larger litters have more glands. The mammary gland of the cow and of some other mammals is known as the udder.
In humans, there is one pair of mammary glands, also known as mammae, or breasts. They are rudimentary in both sexes until the age of puberty when, in response to ovarian hormones, they begin to develop in the female. During pregnancy, they distend still further in preparation for nursing the infant. Pregnant women are prevented from lactating (producing milk) by the presence in the blood of high levels of estrogen and progesterone, secreted by the placenta until birth occurs.
After birth, response to prolactin, the milk-stimulating hormone, is no longer inhibited by placental hormones, and lactation begins. Mammary tissue contains between 15 and 20 compartments called lobes, each of which is divided into smaller compartments called lobules. The lobes and lobules are connected by a network of tubes whose cells manufacture the liquid and fatty substances that form milk. The tubes of each lobe connect with a duct, and all ducts lead to the nipple, where the milk is secreted when the nipple is sucked by the young. The letdown of milk during the nursing process is aided by oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary. The physical force of an infant's sucking on the breast is a major stimulus to milk production. Disorders of the mammary gland include mastitis and breast cancer.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.