ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: Astrocytes are an integral component of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) which may be compromised by ischemic or traumatic brain injury. In response to trauma, astrocytes increase expression of the endopeptidase matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-9. Compromise of the BBB leads to the infiltration of fluid and blood-derived proteins including albumin into the brain parenchyma. Albumin has been previously shown to activate astrocytes and induce the production of inflammatory mediators. The effect of albumin on MMP-9 activation in astrocytes is not known. We investigated the molecular mechanisms underlying the production of MMP-9 by albumin in astrocytes. METHODS: Primary enriched astrocyte cultures were used to investigate the effects of exposure to albumin on the release of MMP-9. MMP-9 expression was analyzed by zymography. The involvement of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the TGF-beta receptor-dependent pathways were investigated using pharmacological inhibitors. The production of ROS was observed by dichlorodihydrofluorescein diacetate fluorescence. The level of the MMP-9 inhibitor tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase (TIMP)-1 produced by astrocytes was measured by ELISA. RESULTS: We found that albumin induces a time-dependent release of MMP-9 via the activation of p38 MAPK and extracellular signal regulated kinase, but not Jun kinase. Albumin-induced MMP-9 production also involves ROS production upstream of the MAPK pathways. However, albumin-induced increase in MMP-9 is independent of the TGF-beta receptor, previously described as a receptor for albumin. Albumin also induces an increase in TIMP-1 via an undetermined mechanism. CONCLUSIONS: These results link albumin (acting through ROS and the p38 MAPK) to the activation of MMP-9 in astrocytes. Numerous studies identify a role for MMP-9 in the mechanisms of compromise of the BBB, epileptogenesis, or synaptic remodeling after ischemia or traumatic brain injury. The increase in MMP-9 produced by albumin further implicates both astrocytes and albumin in the acute and long-term complications of acute CNS insults, including cerebral edema and epilepsy.