There is considerable interest in the pathobiology of tau protein, given its potential role in neurodegenerative diseases and aging. Tau is an important microtubule associated protein, required for the assembly of tubulin into microtubules and maintaining structural integrity of axons. Tau has other diverse cellular functions involving signal transduction, cellular proliferation, developmental neurobiology, neuroplasticity, and synaptic activity. Alternative splicing results in tau isoforms with differing microtubule binding affinity, differing representation in pathological inclusions in certain disease states, and differing roles in developmental biology and homeostasis. Tau haplotypes confer differing susceptibility to neurodegeneration. Tau phosphorylation is a normal metabolic process, critical in controlling tau’s binding to microtubules, and is ongoing within the brain at all times. Tau may be hyperphosphorylated, and may aggregate as detectable fibrillar deposits in tissues, in both aging and neurodegenerative disease. The hypothesis that p-tau is neurotoxic has prompted constructs related to isomers, low-n assembly intermediates or oligomers, and the “tau prion”. Human postmortem studies have elucidated broad patterns of tauopathy, with tendencies for those patterns to differ as a function of disease phenotype. However, there is extensive overlap, not only between genuine neurodegenerative diseases, but also between aging and disease. Recent studies highlight uniqueness to pathological patterns, including a pattern attributed to repetitive head trauma, although clinical correlations have been elusive. The diagnostic process for tauopathies and neurodegenerative diseases in general is challenging in many respects, and may be particularly problematic for postmortem evaluation of former athletes and military service members.
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