Bilirubin, the end-product of heme catabolism, circulates in non-pathological plasma mostly as a protein-bound species. When bilirubin concentration builds up, the free fraction of the molecule increases. Unbound bilirubin then diffuses across blood–brain interfaces (BBIs) into the brain, where it accumulates and exerts neurotoxic effects. In this classical view of bilirubin neurotoxicity, BBIs act merely as structural barriers impeding the penetration of the pigment-bound carrier protein, and neural cells are considered as passive targets of its toxicity. Yet, the role of BBIs in the occurrence of bilirubin encephalopathy appears more complex than being simple barriers to the diffusion of bilirubin, and neural cells such as astrocytes and neurons can play an active role in controlling the balance between the neuroprotective and neurotoxic effects of bilirubin. This article reviews the emerging in vivo and in vitro data showing that transport and metabolic detoxification mechanisms at the blood–brain and blood–cerebrospinal fluid barriers may modulate bilirubin flux across both cellular interfaces, and that these protective functions can be affected in chronic unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia. Then the in vivo and in vitro arguments in favor of the physiological antioxidant function of intracerebral bilirubin are presented, as well as the potential role of transporters such as ABCC1 and metabolizing enzymes such as cytochromes P-450 in setting the cerebral cell- and structure-specific toxicity of bilirubin following hyperbilirubinemia. The relevance of these data to the pathophysiology of bilirubin-induced neurological diseases is discussed
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