, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 497-511

The blood–brain and the blood–cerebrospinal fluid barriers: function and dysfunction

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Abstract

The central nervous system (CNS) is tightly sealed from the changeable milieu of blood by the blood–brain barrier (BBB) and the blood–cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) barrier (BCSFB). While the BBB is considered to be localized at the level of the endothelial cells within CNS microvessels, the BCSFB is established by choroid plexus epithelial cells. The BBB inhibits the free paracellular diffusion of water-soluble molecules by an elaborate network of complex tight junctions (TJs) that interconnects the endothelial cells. Combined with the absence of fenestrae and an extremely low pinocytotic activity, which inhibit transcellular passage of molecules across the barrier, these morphological peculiarities establish the physical permeability barrier of the BBB. In addition, a functional BBB is manifested by a number of permanently active transport mechanisms, specifically expressed by brain capillary endothelial cells that ensure the transport of nutrients into the CNS and exclusion of blood-borne molecules that could be detrimental to the milieu required for neural transmission. Finally, while the endothelial cells constitute the physical and metabolic barrier per se, interactions with adjacent cellular and acellular layers are prerequisites for barrier function. The fully differentiated BBB consists of a complex system comprising the highly specialized endothelial cells and their underlying basement membrane in which a large number of pericytes are embedded, perivascular antigen-presenting cells, and an ensheathment of astrocytic endfeet and associated parenchymal basement membrane. Endothelial cell morphology, biochemistry, and function thus make these brain microvascular endothelial cells unique and distinguishable from all other endothelial cells in the body. Similar to the endothelial barrier, the morphological correlate of the BCSFB is found at the level of unique apical tight junctions between the choroid plexus epithelial cells inhibiting paracellular diffusion of water-soluble molecules across this barrier. Besides its barrier function, choroid plexus epithelial cells have a secretory function and produce the CSF. The barrier and secretory function of the choroid plexus epithelial cells are maintained by the expression of numerous transport systems allowing the directed transport of ions and nutrients into the CSF and the removal of toxic agents out of the CSF. In the event of CNS pathology, barrier characteristics of the blood–CNS barriers are altered, leading to edema formation and recruitment of inflammatory cells into the CNS. In this review we will describe current knowledge on the cellular and molecular basis of the functional and dysfunctional blood–CNS barriers with focus on CNS autoimmune inflammation.