The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a continuous endothelial membrane within brain microvessels that has sealed cell-to-cell contacts and is sheathed by mural vascular cells and perivascular astrocyte end-feet. The BBB protects neurons from factors present in the systemic circulation and maintains the highly regulated CNS internal milieu, which is required for proper synaptic and neuronal functioning. BBB disruption allows influx into the brain of neurotoxic blood-derived debris, cells and microbial pathogens and is associated with inflammatory and immune responses, which can initiate multiple pathways of neurodegeneration. This Review discusses neuroimaging studies in the living human brain and post-mortem tissue as well as biomarker studies demonstrating BBB breakdown in Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, Huntington disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, HIV-1-associated dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The pathogenic mechanisms by which BBB breakdown leads to neuronal injury, synaptic dysfunction, loss of neuronal connectivity and neurodegeneration are described. The importance of a healthy BBB for therapeutic drug delivery and the adverse effects of disease-initiated, pathological BBB breakdown in relation to brain delivery of neuropharmaceuticals are briefly discussed. Finally, future directions, gaps in the field and opportunities to control the course of neurological diseases by targeting the BBB are presented.