, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 77-95

Transferrin and Transferrin Receptor Function in Brain Barrier Systems

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1. Iron (Fe) is an essential component of virtually all types of cells and organisms. In plasma and interstitial fluids, Fe is carried by transferrin. Iron-containing transferrin has a high affinity for the transferrin receptor, which is present on all cells with a requirement for Fe. The degree of expression of transferrin receptors on most types of cells is determined by the level of Fe supply and their rate of proliferation.

2. The brain, like other organs, requires Fe for metabolic processes and suffers from disturbed function when a Fe deficiency or excess occurs. Hence, the transport of Fe across brain barrier systems must be regulated. The interaction between transferrin and transferrin receptor appears to serve this function in the blood–brain, blood–CSF, and cellular–plasmalemma barriers. Transferrin is present in blood plasma and brain extracellular fluids, and the transferrin receptor is present on brain capillary endothelial cells, choroid plexus epithelial cells, neurons, and probably also glial cells.

3. The rate of Fe transport from plasma to brain is developmentally regulated, peaking in the first few weeks of postnatal life in the rat, after which it decreases rapidly to low values. Two mechanisms for Fe transport across the blood–brain barrier have been proposed. One is that the Fe–transferrin complex is transported intact across the capillary wall by receptor-mediated transcytosis. In the second, Fe transport is the result of receptor-mediated endocytosis of Fe–transferrin by capillary endothelial cells, followed by release of Fe from transferrin within the cell, recycling of transferrin to the blood, and transport of Fe into the brain. Current evidence indicates that although some transcytosis of transferrin does occur, the amount is quantitatively insufficient to account for the rate of Fe transport, and the majority of Fe transport probably occurs by the second of the above mechanisms.

4. An additional route of Fe and transferrin transport from the blood to the brain is via the blood–CSF barrier and from the CSF into the brain. Iron-containing transferrin is transported through the blood–CSF barrier by a mechanism that appears to be regulated by developmental stage and iron status. The transfer of transferrin from blood to CSF is higher than that of albumin, which may be due to the presence of transferrin receptors on choroid plexus epithelial cells so that transferrin can be transported across the cells by a receptor-mediated process as well as by nonselective mechanisms.

5. Transferrin receptors have been detected in neurons in vivo and in cultured glial cells. Transferrin is present in the brain interstitial fluid, and it is generally assumed that Fe which transverses the blood–brain barrier is rapidly bound by brain transferrin and can then be taken up by receptor-mediated endocytosis in brain cells. The uptake of transferrin-bound Fe by neurons and glial cells is probably regulated by the number of transferrin receptors present on cells, which changes during development and in conditions with an altered iron status.

6. This review focuses on the information available on the functions of transferrin and transferrin receptor with respect to Fe transport across the blood–brain and blood–CSF barriers and the cell membranes of neurons and glial cells.