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January 2019

Mechanisms of Cell-to-Cell Transmission of Pathological Tau: A Review

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia
  • 2Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia
  • 3Institute on Aging, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia
JAMA Neurol. 2019;76(1):101-108. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2018.2505

Importance  Intracellular tau protein aggregates are a pathological hallmark of neurodegenerative tauopathies, including Alzheimer disease (AD), progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), corticobasal degeneration (CBD), and Pick disease. Emerging evidence supports a model of cell-to-cell transmission of proteinaceous pathological tau seeds, which leads to recruitment and templated fibrillization of endogenous cellular tau followed by the spread of abnormal tau throughout the brain. These findings lead to the strain hypothesis, which predicts that distinct conformational strains or polymorphs of tau may underlie the clinical and neuropathological heterogeneity and cell-type specificity of tauopathies. In this review, we describe the evidence for propagation of distinct tau strains in cell culture and animal models of AD and mechanistic insights into cell-to-cell transmission of pathological tau.

Observations  Intracranial injections of synthetic tau-preformed fibrils and human brain-derived pathological tau into nontransgenic wild-type mice and transgenic mouse models of AD expressing β-amyloid and tau-amyloid deposits yield widespread pathological tau aggregates observed in neuroanatomically connected brain regions distant from the site of injection. Furthermore, when human brain–derived pathological tau obtained from distinct tauopathies (ie, brains with AD, PSP, and CBD) were injected into the brains of wild-type mice, they seeded tau pathology and faithfully recapitulated cell-type specific tau inclusions characteristic of each tauopathy in a time-dependent, dose-dependent, and injection site–dependent spread reflective of the connectome of the injection site.

Conclusions and Relevance  These findings provide compelling evidence that misfolded or pathological conformers of tau undergo cell-to-cell spread in a tauopathy strain-specific manner. Importantly, evidence to date supports that pathological tau strains do not behave like infectious agents, despite growing evidence that these tau strains undergo templated propagation and spread linked to the neuroanatomical connectome of the injection site.