Physiology of blood-brain interfaces in relation to brain disposition of small compounds and macromolecules

Mol Pharm. 2013 May 6;10(5):1473-91. doi: 10.1021/mp300518e. Epub 2013 Jan 23.


The brain develops and functions within a strictly controlled environment resulting from the coordinated action of different cellular interfaces located between the blood and the extracellular fluids of the brain, which include the interstitial fluid and the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). As a correlate, the delivery of pharmacologically active molecules and especially macromolecules to the brain is challenged by the barrier properties of these interfaces. Blood-brain interfaces comprise both the blood-brain barrier located at the endothelium of the brain microvessels and the blood-CSF barrier located at the epithelium of the choroid plexuses. Although both barriers develop extensive surface areas of exchange between the blood and the neuropil or the CSF, the molecular fluxes across these interfaces are tightly regulated. Cerebral microvessels acquire a barrier phenotype early during cerebral vasculogenesis under the influence of the Wnt/β-catenin pathway, and of recruited pericytes. Later in development, astrocytes also play a role in blood-brain barrier maintenance. The tight choroid plexus epithelium develops very early during embryogenesis. It is specified by various signaling molecules from the embryonic dorsal midline, such as bone morphogenic proteins, and grows under the influence of Sonic hedgehog protein. Tight junctions at each barrier comprise a distinctive set of claudins from the pore-forming and tightening categories that determine their respective paracellular barrier characteristics. Vesicular traffic is limited in the cerebral endothelium and abundant in the choroidal epithelium, yet without evidence of active fluid phase transcytosis. Inorganic ion transport is highly regulated across the barriers. Small organic compounds such as nutrients, micronutrients and hormones are transported into the brain by specific solute carriers. Other bioactive metabolites, lipophilic toxic xenobiotics or pharmacological agents are restrained from accumulating in the brain by several ATP-binding cassette efflux transporters, multispecific solute carriers, and detoxifying enzymes. These various molecular effectors differently distribute between the two barriers. Receptor-mediated endocytotic and transcytotic mechanisms are active in the barriers. They enable brain penetration of selected polypeptides and proteins, or inversely macromolecule efflux as it is the case for immnoglobulins G. An additional mechanism specific to the BCSFB mediates the transport of selected plasma proteins from blood into CSF in the developing brain. All these mechanisms could be explored and manipulated to improve macromolecule delivery to the brain.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport, Active
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / anatomy & histology
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Drug Delivery Systems*
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I / metabolism
  • Humans
  • LDL-Receptor Related Proteins / metabolism
  • Pinocytosis
  • Protein Transport
  • Receptor, Insulin / metabolism
  • Receptors, Fc / metabolism
  • Tight Junctions / physiology
  • Tight Junctions / ultrastructure
  • Transcytosis


  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I
  • LDL-Receptor Related Proteins
  • Receptors, Fc
  • Receptor, Insulin
  • Fc receptor, neonatal