We have isolated cDNA clones encoding a 383-amino acid isoform of the human microtubule-associated protein tau. It differs from previously determined tau sequences by the presence of an additional repeat of 31 amino acids, giving four, rather than three, tandem repeats in its carboxy-terminal half. The extra repeat is encoded by a separate exon. Probes derived from cDNA clones encoding the three (type I) and four repeat (type II) tau protein isoforms detected mRNAs for both forms in all adult human brain areas examined. However, in foetal brain only type I mRNA was found. Type I and type II mRNAs were present in pyramidal cells in cerebral cortex. In the hippocampal formation, type I mRNA was found in pyramidal and granule cells; type II mRNA was detected in most, though not all, pyramidal cells but not in granule cells. These observations indicate that tau protein mRNAs are expressed in a stage- and cell-specific manner. Tau protein is found in the protease-resistant core of the paired helical filament, the major constituent of the neurofibrillary tangle in Alzheimer's disease. Taken in conjunction with previous findings, the present results indicate that both the three and four repeat-containing tau protein isoforms are present in the core of the paired helical filament.