In his original 1911 publication Alois Alzheimer classified neurofibrillary tangles (ANT) into three morphologically defined subgroups according to their stage of maturation. The present study shows that changes in the morphological appearance of ANT during their maturation process are accompanied by changes in their antigenic profile. As shown by several immunocytochemical studies these abnormal phosphorylated microtubule-associated protein tau and of ubiquitin. In this study, immunoreactivity for the altered tau is not only seen in a subset of tangles but also in the cytoplasm of some nerve cells lacking ANT, which we believe to be at a stage of neuronal alteration preceding the formation of compact tangles (Stage 0 tangles). Similar numbers of Stage 0 tangles are present in the brains of age-matched non-demented individuals as in Alzheimer cases, but are absent in young controls lacking ANT. In extracellular "ghost tangles", the ultimate stage of neurofibrillary degeneration, immunoreactivity for tau is accessible to antibodies only when tissue sections are pretreated with formic acid to uncover the binding sites. In contrast to tau, presence/accessibility of an epitope residing on residues 50-65 of ubiquitin recognized by a monoclonal antibody raised to paired helical filaments (3-39) increases during the maturation of ANT and is most pronounced in "ghost tangles". Appearance/uncovering of the 3-39 epitope and masking of tau reactivity during tangle maturation may reflect degradation or conformational changes in the pathological filaments due to their aging and the final loss of their parent nerve cells.