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Treatment of large bone defects represents a great challenge in orthopedic and craniomaxillofacial surgery. Although there are several methods for bone reconstruction, they all have specific indications and limitations. The concept of using barrier membranes for restoration of bone defects has been developed in an effort to simplify their treatment by offering a sinlge-staged procedure. Research on this field of bone regeneration is ongoing, with evidence being mainly attained from preclinical studies. The purpose of this review is to summarize the current experimental and clinical evidence on the use of barrier membranes for restoration of bone defects in maxillofacial and orthopedic surgery. Although there are a few promising preliminary human studies, before clinical applications can be recommended, future research should aim to establish the 'ideal' barrier membrane and delineate the need for additional bone grafting materials aiming to 'mimic' or even accelerate the normal process of bone formation. Reproducible results and long-term observations with barrier membranes in animal studies, and particularly in large animal models, are required as well as well-designed clinical studies to evaluate their safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness.