Addressing central nervous system (CNS) penetration in drug discovery: basics and implications of the evolving new concept

Chem Biodivers. 2009 Nov;6(11):2030-49. doi: 10.1002/cbdv.200900103.


Despite enormous efforts, achieving a safe and efficacious concentration profile in the brain remains one of the big challenges in central nervous system (CNS) drug discovery and development. Although there are multiple reasons, many failures are due to underestimating the complexity of the brain, also in terms of pharmacokinetics (PK). To this day, PK support of CNS drug discovery heavily relies on improving the blood-brain barrier (BBB) permeability in vitro and/or the brain/plasma ratio (Kp) in vivo, even though neither parameter can be reliably linked to pharmacodynamic (PD) and efficacy readouts. While increasing BBB permeability may shorten the onset of drug action, an increase in the total amount in brain may not necessarily increase the relevant drug concentration at the pharmacological target. Since the traditional Kp ratio is based on a crude homogenization of brain tissue, it ignores the compartmentalization of the brain and an increase favors non-specific binding to brain lipids rather than free drug levels. To better link exposure/PK to efficacy/PD and to delineate key parameters, an integrated approach to CNS drug discovery is emerging which distinguishes total from unbound brain concentrations. As the complex nature of the brain requires different compartments to be considered when trying to understand and improve new compounds, several complementary parameters need to be measured in vitro and in vivo, and integrated into a coherent model of brain penetration and distribution. The new paradigm thus concentrates on finding drug candidates with the right balance between free fraction in plasma and brain, and between rate and extent of CNS penetration. Integrating this data into a coherent model of CNS distribution which can be linked to efficacy will allow it to design compounds with an optimal mix in physicochemical, pharmacologic, and pharmacokinetic properties, ultimately mitigating the risk for failures in the clinic.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Absorption
  • Animals
  • Area Under Curve
  • Biological Availability
  • Blood-Brain Barrier
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism*
  • Drug Discovery*
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism*
  • Pharmacokinetics
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations