How to measure drug transport across the blood-brain barrier

NeuroRx. 2005 Jan;2(1):15-26. doi: 10.1602/neurorx.2.1.15.


The extent to which a substance in the circulation gains access to the CNS needs to be determined for potential neuropharmaceuticals as well as for drug candidates with primary targets in the periphery. Characteristics of the in vivo methods, ranging from classical pharmacokinetic techniques (intravenous administration and tissue sampling) over brain perfusions to microdialysis and imaging techniques, are highlighted. In vivo measurements remain unmatched with respect to sensitivity and for the characterization of carrier-mediated uptake, receptor-mediated transport, and active efflux. Isolated microvessels are valuable tools for molecular characterization of transporters. Endothelial cell culture models of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) are pursued as in vitro systems suitable for screening procedures. Recent applications of conditionally immortalized cell lines indicate that a particular weakness of culture models because of downregulation of BBB-specific transporter systems can be overcome. In silico approaches are being developed with the goal of predicting brain uptake from molecular structure at early stages of drug development. Currently, the predictive capability is limited to passive, diffusional uptake and predominantly relies on few molecular descriptors related to lipophilicity, hydrogen bonding capacity, charge, and molecular weight. A caveat with most present strategies is their reliance on surrogates of BBB transport, like CNS activity/inactivity or brain-to-blood partitioning rather than actual BBB permeability data.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Autoradiography
  • Biological Transport, Active
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Carrier Proteins / metabolism*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Computer Simulation
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Endothelium, Vascular / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism*
  • Pharmacokinetics


  • Carrier Proteins
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations