Abstract The blood–brain barrier (BBB), the dynamic interface between the nervous tissue and the blood, is composed by endothelial cells, pericytes and astrocytes. Extracellular nucleotides and nucleosides and their receptors (the purinergic system) constitute a widely diffused signaling system involved in many pathophysiological processes. However, the role of this system in controlling BBB functions is still largely unknown. By using cultures of these three cell types grown separately and a BBB in vitro model consisting of triple co-cultures, we studied for the first time the expression and distribution of the ecto-enzymes nucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolases (NTPDases, the enzymes which hydrolyze extracellular nucleotides) under control and ischemic (oxygen–glucose deprivation in vitro; OGD) conditions. NTPDase1 was detected in all three cell types, whereas NTPDase2 was expressed by astrocytes and pericytes and, to a lesser extent, by endothelial cells. Endothelial cells were extremely susceptible to cell death when OGD was applied to mimic in vitro the cytotoxicity induced by ischemia, whereas astrocytes and pericytes were more resistant. A semi-quantitative assay highlighted markedly increased e-ATPase activity following exposure to OGD in all three cell types, either when grown separately or when co-cultured together to resemble the composition of the BBB. Moreover, electron microscopy analysis showed that both endothelial cells and astrocytes shed microvesicles containing NTPDases from their membrane, which may suggest a novel mechanism to increase the breakdown of ATP released to toxic levels by damaged BBB cells. We hypothesize that this phenomenon could have a protective and/or modulatory effect for brain parenchymal cells. This in vitro model is therefore useful to study the role of extracellular nucleotides in modulating BBB responses to ischemic events, and to develop new effective purinergic-based approaches for brain ischemia.