Previous studies have shown that the fraction of hormone or drug that is plasma protein bound is readily available for transport through the brain endothelial wall, i.e., the blood-brain barrier (BBB). To test whether these observations are reconcilable with the free-hormone hypothesis, a tracer-kinetic model is used in the present investigations to analyze in vivo initial extraction data on BBB transport of protein-bound steroid hormones (dihydrotestosterone, testosterone, estradiol, and corticosterone), thyroid hormones (triiodothyronine), and lipophilic amine drugs (propranolol). The plasma proteins used are bovine albumin and human orosomucoid. Transport data was fit to a modification of the Kety-Renkin-Crone equation of capillary physiology; the modified equation incorporates the principles of both capillary physiology and plasma protein-ligand mass action binding relationships. In most cases, the experimental data is best fit to the model equation when the apparent in vivo dissociation constant, KDa, of the ligand protein binding reaction increases to values that are 5- to 50-fold greater than the in vitro dissociation constant, KD. This result indicates that the rate of ligand dissociation from the plasma protein is accelerated in the capillary bed relative to the in vitro situation. It is hypothesized that the major factor leading to the rapid transport in vivo of protein-bound ligands into tissues such as brain is an endothelial-induced decrease in the affinity of the plasma protein for the ligand. Under these conditions, the amount of plasma ligand available for tissue clearance in vivo parallels the protein-bound fraction, not the free hormone.