A quantitative analysis of blood-brain barrier ultrastructure in the aging human

Microvasc Res. 1987 Mar;33(2):270-82. doi: 10.1016/0026-2862(87)90022-7.


The unique ultrastructure of brain endothelial cells restricts nonspecific leakage of blood-borne molecules across the blood-brain barrier (bbb). Human barrier ultrastructure has not been studied extensively because of the rapid ultrastructural degeneration that takes place after death. We have obtained living, structurally normal neocortex and underlying white matter at biopsy from patients of various ages, and have quantitated ultrastructural features that are associated with the bbb so that we could characterize human barrier ultrastructure and determine whether it changes with age. We found that gray matter capillaries have thinner walls than white matter capillaries, and that during aging white matter capillary walls became thinner until they approached the dimensions of those in gray matter. Thinning is due to loss of pericytes and thinning of the endothelial cytoplasm. The mitochondrial density was found to be higher in gray matter than in white matter, but this is a consequence of there being a smaller cytoplasmic volume and not more (or larger) mitochondria. The mitochondrial population did not change with age. Presumptive nonspecific permeability routes (endothelial vesicles, junctional gaps) did not change with age; therefore we found no morphological substrate for increased nonspecific bbb permeability in the aging human. The loss of pericytes, however, suggests that the bbb in the elderly may be less able to compensate for transient leaks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier*
  • Brain / ultrastructure*
  • Brain Neoplasms / ultrastructure
  • Capillaries / ultrastructure*
  • Capillary Permeability
  • Endothelium / ultrastructure
  • Epilepsy / pathology
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Mitochondria / ultrastructure