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Evolution of neuronal and glial tau isoforms in chronic traumatic encephalopathy

Authors: Jonathan D Cherry 1 2 3 4, Soong Ho Kim 5, Thor D Stein 1 3 4 6, Morgan J Pothast 3 4, Raymond Nicks 3 4 6, Gaoyuan Meng 6, Bertrand R Huber 3 4 6, Jesse Mez 2 3 7, Michael L Alosco 2 3, Yorghos Tripodis 8, Kurt Farrell 5, Victor E Alvarez 3 4 6, Ann C McKee 1 2 3 4 6, John F Crary 5

Online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/bpa.12867

Issue: Brain Pathology. 2020 Sep;30(5):913-925. doi: 10.1111/bpa.12867.


Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative tauopathy characterized by accumulation of hyperphosphorylated tau (p-tau) in perivascular aggregates in neurons and glia at the depths of neocortical sulci and progresses to diffuse neocortical, allocortical and brainstem structures. The strongest risk factor is exposure to repetitive head impacts acquired most commonly through contact sports and military service. Given that CTE can only be definitively diagnosed after death, a better understanding of the cellular and molecular changes in CTE brains may lead to identification of mechanisms that could be used for novel biomarkers, monitoring progression or therapeutic development. Disruption of alternative pre-mRNA splicing of tau mRNA plays a pathogenic role in tauopathy, with multiple characteristic patterns of isoform accumulation varying among tauopathies. Limited data are available on CTE, particularly at early stages. Using biochemical and histological approaches, we performed a detailed characterization of tau isoform signatures in post-mortem human brain tissue from individuals with a range of CTE stages (n = 99). In immunoblot analyses, severity was associated with decreased total monomeric tau and increased total oligomeric tau. Immunoblot with isoform-specific antisera revealed that oligomeric tau with three and four microtubule binding domain repeats (3R and 4R) also increased with CTE severity. Similarly, immunohistochemical studies revealed p-tau accumulation consisting of both 3R and 4R in perivascular lesions. When the ratio of 4R:3R was analyzed, there was mixed expression throughout CTE stages, although 4R predominated in early CTE stages (I-II), a 3R shift was observed in later stages (III-IV). While neurons were found to contain both 3R and 4R, astrocytes only contained 4R. These 4R-positive cells were exclusively neuronal at early stages. Overall, these findings demonstrate that CTE is a mixed 4R/3R tauopathy. Furthermore, histologic analysis reveals a progressive shift in tau isoforms that correlates with CTE stage and extent of neuronal pathology.

Keywords: chronic traumatic encephalopathy; gliofibrillary tangle; hyperphosphorylation; neurofibrillary tangle; tau isoform; tauopathy.



  1. Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA.
  2. Department of Neurology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA.
  3. Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE Centers, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA.
  4. VA Boston Healthcare System, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Boston, MA.
  5. Neuropathology Brain Bank & Research CoRE, Department of Pathology, Nash Family Department of Neuroscience, Ronald M. Loeb Center for Alzheimer’s Disease, Friedman Brain Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY.
  6. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bedford, MA.
  7. Framingham Heart Study, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA.
  8. Department of Biostatistics, School of Public Health, Boston University, Boston, MA.