Iron trafficking inside the brain

J Neurochem. 2007 Dec;103(5):1730-40. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-4159.2007.04976.x. Epub 2007 Oct 22.


Iron, an essential element for all cells of the body, including those of the brain, is transported bound to transferrin in the blood and the general extracellular fluid of the body. The demonstration of transferrin receptors on brain capillary endothelial cells (BCECs) more than 20 years ago provided the evidence for the now accepted view that the first step in blood to brain transport of iron is receptor-mediated endocytosis of transferrin. Subsequent steps are less clear. However, recent investigations which form the basis of this review have shed some light on them and also indicate possible fruitful avenues for future research. They provide new evidence on how iron is released from transferrin on the abluminal surface of BCECs, including the role of astrocytes in this process, how iron is transported in brain extracellular fluid, and how iron is taken up by neurons and glial cells. We propose that the divalent metal transporter 1 is not involved in iron transport through the BCECs. Instead, iron is probably released from transferrin on the abluminal surface of these cells by the action of citrate and ATP that are released by astrocytes, which form a very close relationship with BCECs. Complexes of iron with citrate and ATP can then circulate in brain extracellular fluid and may be taken up in these low-molecular weight forms by all types of brain cells or be bound by transferrin and taken up by cells which express transferrin receptors. Some iron most likely also circulates bound to transferrin, as neurons contain both transferrin receptors and divalent metal transporter 1 and can take up transferrin-bound iron. The most likely source for transferrin in the brain interstitium derives from diffusion from the ventricles. Neurons express the iron exporting carrier, ferroportin, which probably allows them to excrete unneeded iron. Astrocytes lack transferrin receptors. Their source of iron is probably that released from transferrin on the abluminal surface of BCECs. They probably to export iron by a mechanism involving a membrane-bound form of the ferroxidase, ceruloplasmin. Oligodendrocytes also lack transferrin receptors. They probably take up non-transferrin bound iron that gets incorporated in newly synthesized transferrin, which may play an important role for intracellular iron transport.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology
  • Brain / cytology
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Receptors, Transferrin / physiology
  • Transferrin / physiology


  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin
  • Iron