To investigate the extent to which whole tau proteins, structurally abnormal tau and fragments of tau are incorporated into neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer's disease, an immunocytochemical mapping study using a panel of antibodies to several synthetic human tau peptides has been performed. Neurofibrillary tangles were immunolabelled in situ, and paired helical filaments (PHF), the principal structural component of tangles, were immunolabelled after isolation and Pronase treatment. N-Terminal and C-terminal domains of tau were found to be present in tangles in situ. SDS-treated PHF were found to contain most of the C-terminal half of tau and were also labelled by antibodies to ubiquitin. Only some of these PHF were labelled by antisera to tau sequences towards the N-terminus, and this enabled the identification of a region of tau in which proteolytic cleavage may occur. The ultrastructural appearance of the immunolabelling suggested that both the N- and C-terminal domains of tau extend outwards from the axis of PHF. After Pronase treatment. PHF were strongly labelled only by an antiserum to PHF and by the antiserum to the most C-terminal tau synthetic peptide. The latter antiserum also strongly labelled extracellular tangles in situ, whereas these extracellular tangles were poorly labelled by the antisera to the other synthetic peptides. One anti-(tau peptide) serum labelled a population of neurofibrillary tangles in situ only after alkaline phosphatase pretreatment of tissue sections. Our results show that, although peptides along the length of the tau molecule are associated with neurofibrillary tangles in situ, only the C-terminal one-third of the molecule is tightly associated with PHF, since this region of tau is resistant to SDS treatment of PHF. We also report the existence in PHF in situ of a masked tau epitope which is partially unmasked by dephosphorylation. These results are indicative of post-translational changes in tangle-associated tau in degenerating neurons in Alzheimer's disease.

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