Drug transfer across the blood-brain barrier and improvement of brain delivery

Fundam Clin Pharmacol. 1999;13(1):16-26. doi: 10.1111/j.1472-8206.1999.tb00316.x.


The blood-brain barrier is formed by the endothelial cells of the brain capillaries. Its primary characteristic is the impermeability of the capillary wall due to the presence of complex tight junctions and a low endocytic activity. Essential nutrients are delivered to the brain by selective transport mechanisms, such as the glucose transporter and a variety of amino acid transporters. Although most drugs enter the brain by passive diffusion through the endothelial cells depending on their lipophilicity, degree of ionization, molecular weight, relative brain tissue and plasma bindings, some others can use specific endogenous transporters. In such cases, binding competition on the transporter with endogenous products or nutrients can occur and limits drug transfer. The blood-brain barrier can be a major impediment for the treatment of diseases of the central nervous system, since many drugs are unable to reach this organ at therapeutic concentrations. Various attempts have been made to overcome the limiting access of drugs to the brain, e.g. chemical modification, development of more hydrophobic analogs or linking an active compound to a specific carrier. Transient opening of the blood-brain barrier in humans has been achieved by intracarotid infusion of hypertonic mannitol solutions or of bradykinin analogs. Another way to increase or decrease brain delivery of drugs is to modulate the P-glycoprotein (P-gp) whose substrates are actively pumped out the cell into the capillary lumen. Many P-gp inhibitors or inducers are available to enhance the therapeutic effects of centrally acting drugs or to decrease central adverse effects of peripherally active drugs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology*
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Drug Delivery Systems*
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / administration & dosage
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism*
  • Pharmacokinetics


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations