We developed a new immunohistochemical method by which normal tau antigenicity can be visualized in paraffin sections of formalin-fixed brain tissue. This method consists of autoclave pretreatment of sections immersed into distilled water (hydrated autoclaving) before incubation with anti-tau antibodies. In normal human brain, immunoreactive tau was detected in neuronal cell bodies and dendrites, axon fibers, astroglia, oligodendroglia and gray matter neuropil. In previous studies on normal tau distribution, different optimized fixations that effectively preserve tau antigenicity were used but none of these revealed all of these compartments together. Our method is therefore considered to be more sensitive for detecting normal tau immunoreactivity. In addition, hydrated autoclaving had an enhancing effect on the abnormally phosphorylated (modified) tau immunoreactivity in formalin-fixed brains. In hydrated autoclaving of sections from patients with Alzheimer's disease, neuropil threads, senile plaques, extracellular and intracellular tangles were enhanced in quantity and in staining intensity. Therefore, modified tau appears to accumulate more densely than expected from conventional immunohistochemistry. Immunoblot analysis showed that normal or modified tau immunoreactivity was totally or partially eliminated on formalin treatment and could be revisualized by hydrated autoclaving, an event presumably related to recovering of formalin-masked tau antigens through denaturation by hydrated autoclaving.