Reabsorption and Secretion in the Loop of Henle


Countercurrent Multiplier System
Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The loop of Henle consists of two sections: thick and thin descending and thin and thick ascending sections. The loops of cortical nephrons do not extend into the renal medulla very far, if at all. Juxtamedullary nephrons have loops that extend variable distances, some very deep into the medulla. The descending and ascending portions of the loop are highly specialized to enable recovery of much of the Na+ and water that were filtered by the glomerulus. As the forming urine moves through the loop, the osmolarity will change from isosmotic with blood (about 278–300 mOsmol/kg) to both a very ypertonic solution of about 1200 mOsmol/kg and a very hypotonic solution of about 100 mOsmol/kg. These changes are accomplished by osmosis in the descending limb and active transport in the ascending limb. Solutes and water recovered from these loops are returned to the circulation by way of the vasa recta.

Descending Loop

The majority of the descending loop is comprised of simple squamous epithelial cells; to simplify the function of the loop, this discussion focuses on these cells. These membranes have permanent aquaporin channel proteins that allow unrestricted movement of water from the descending loop into the surrounding interstitium as osmolarity increases from about 300 mOsmol/kg to about 1200 mOsmol/kg. This increase results in reabsorption of up to 15 percent of the water entering the nephron. Modest amounts of urea, Na+ , and other ions are also recovered here.

Most of the solutes that were filtered in the glomerulus have now been recovered along with a majority of water, about 82 percent. As the forming urine enters the ascending loop, major adjustments will be made to the concentration of solutes to create what you perceive as urine.

Ascending Loop

The ascending loop is made of very short thin and longer thick portions. Once again, to simplify the function, this section only considers the thick portion. The thick portion is lined with simple cuboidal epithelium without a brush border. It is completely impermeable to water due to the absence of aquaporin proteins, but ions, mainly Na+ and CL , are actively reabsorbed by a cotransport system. This has two significant effects: Removal of NaCl while retaining water leads to a hypoosomotic filtrate by the time it reaches the DCT; pumping NaCl into the interstitial space contributes to the hyperosmotic environment in the kidney medulla.

The Na+/K + ATPase pumps in the basal membrane create an electrochemical gradient, allowing reabsorption of Cl by Na+ /Cl symporters in the apical membrane. At the same time that Na+ is actively pumped from the basal side of the cell into the interstitial fluid, Cl follows the Na+ from the lumen into the interstitial fluid by a paracellular route between cells through leaky tight junctions. These are found between cells of the ascending loop, where they allow certain solutes to move according to their concentration gradient. Most of the K+ that enters the cell via symporters returns to the lumen (down its concentration gradient) through leaky channels in the apical membrane. Note the environment now created in the interstitial space: With the “back door exiting” K+ , there is one Na+ and two Cl ions left in the interstitium surrounding the ascending loop. Therefore, in comparison to the lumen of the loop, the interstitial space is now a negatively charged environment. This negative charge attracts cations (Na+ , K+ , Ca++, and Mg++) from the lumen via a paracellular route to the interstitial space and vasa recta.

Countercurrent Multiplier System

The structure of the loop of Henle and associated vasa recta create a countercurrent multiplier system. The countercurrent term comes from the fact that the descending and ascending loops are next to each other and their fluid flows in opposite directions (countercurrent). The multiplier term is due to the action of solute pumps that increase (multiply) the concentrations of urea and Na+ deep in the medulla.

As discussed above, the ascending loop actively reabsorbs NaCl out of the forming urine into the interstitial spaces. In addition, collecting ducts have urea pumps that actively pump urea into the interstitial spaces. This results in the recovery of NaCl to the circulation via the vasa recta and creates a high osmolar environment in the depths of the medulla.

Ammonia (NH3) is a toxic byproduct of protein metabolism. It is formed as amino acids are deaminated by liver hepatocytes. That means that the amine group, NH2, is removed from amino acids as they are broken down. Most of the resulting ammonia is converted into urea by liver hepatocytes. Urea is not only less toxic but is utilized to aid in the recovery of water by the loop of Henle and collecting ducts. At the same time that water is freely diffusing out of the descending loop through aquaporin channels into the interstitial spaces of the medulla, urea freely diffuses into the lumen of the descending loop as it descends deeper into the medulla, much of it to be reabsorbed from the forming urine when it reaches the collecting duct. Thus, the movement of Na+ and urea into the interstitial spaces by these mechanisms creates the hyperosmotic environment of the medulla. The net result of this countercurrent multiplier system is to recover both water and Na+ in the circulation.

The amino acid glutamine can be deaminated by the kidney. As NH2 from the amino acid is converted into NH3 and pumped into the lumen of the PCT, Na+ and HCO3 – are excreted into the interstitial fluid of the renal pyramid via a symport mechanism. When this process occurs in the cells of the PCT, the added benefit is a net loss of a hydrogen ion (complexed to ammonia to form the weak acid NH4+ ) in the urine and a gain of a bicarbonate ion (HCO3 – ) in the blood. Ammonia and bicarbonate are exchanged in a one-to-one ratio. This exchange is yet another means by which the body can buffer and excrete acid. The presence of aquaporin channels in the descending loop allows prodigious quantities of water to leave the loop and enter the hyperosmolar interstitium of the pyramid, where it is returned to the circulation by the vasa recta. As the loop turns to become the ascending loop, there is an absence of aquaporin channels, so water cannot leave the loop. However, in the basal membrane of cells of the thick ascending loop, ATPase pumps actively remove Na+ from the cell. A Na+ /K+ /2Cl symporter in the apical membrane passively allows these ions to enter the cell cytoplasm from the lumen of the loop down a concentration gradient created by the pump. This mechanism works to dilute the fluid of the ascending loop ultimately to approximately 50–100 mOsmol/L.

At the transition from the DCT to the collecting duct, about 20 percent of the original water is still present and about 10 percent of the sodium. If no other mechanism for water reabsorption existed, about 20–25 liters of urine would be produced. Now consider what is happening in the adjacent capillaries, the vasa recta. They are recovering both solutes and water at a rate that preserves the countercurrent multiplier system. In general, blood flows slowly in capillaries to allow time for exchange of nutrients and wastes. In the vasa recta particularly, this rate of flow is important for two additional reasons. The flow must be slow to allow blood cells to lose and regain water without either crenating or bursting. Second, a rapid flow would remove too much Na+ and urea, destroying the osmolar gradient that is necessary for the recovery of solutes and water. Thus, by flowing slowly to preserve the countercurrent mechanism, as the vasa recta descend, Na+ and urea are freely able to enter the capillary, while water freely leaves; as they ascend, Na+ and urea are secreted into the surrounding medulla, while water reenters and is removed.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax.

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