The effects of the excitatory amino acid glutamate, the microtubule destabilizing agent colchicine, and beta 25-35-amyloid peptide on the phosphorylation state of tau were studied in rat cortical neurons in primary culture. Using immunocytochemistry and Western-blot analysis, we demonstrated that a proportion of tau in these cultures is normally highly phosphorylated, but most of this tau fraction is dephosphorylated after treatment of the cultures with glutamate or colchicine, but not with beta-amyloid; the glutamate- and colchicine-induced changes in tau phosphorylation commenced before cell death, as assessed by release of lactate dehydrogenase. Dephosphorylation of tau was readily revealed by using the monoclonal antibodies Tau.1 and AT8, which have phosphate-sensitive epitopes that both centre around serine-199 and -202 (numbering of the largest tau isoform). On Western blots and by immunocytochemistry, AT8 labelling strongly decreased after glutamate and colchicine treatments, whereas Tau.1 staining was more intense. Neurofilament monoclonal antibodies, including RT97, 8D8, SMI31 and SMI310, all additionally known to recognize tau in a phosphorylation-dependent manner, also demonstrated that glutamate and colchicine treatments of the cultures induced a dephosphorylation of tau. We also showed immunocytochemically that there is an increase in tau immunoreactivity in neuronal perikarya in response to glutamate and colchicine treatment, and this occurs concomitantly with the dephosphorylation of tau. Treatment of the primary rat cortical neuronal cultures with beta 25-35-amyloid peptide, under conditions which induce neuronal degeneration, did not induce a change in tau phosphorylation, and failed to act synergistically with glutamate to produce an increase in dephosphorylation of tau over that produced by glutamate treatment alone. These findings demonstrate that glutamate and colchicine induce tau dephosphorylation, as opposed to increased tau phosphorylation, which would be more indicative of Alzheimer-type neurodegeneration.

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