Tau is a microtubule-associated protein that has a role in stabilizing neuronal microtubules and thus in promoting axonal outgrowth. Structurally, tau is a natively unfolded protein, is highly soluble and shows little tendency for aggregation. However, tau aggregation is characteristic of several neurodegenerative diseases known as tauopathies. The mechanisms underlying tau pathology and tau-mediated neurodegeneration are debated, but considerable progress has been made in the field of tau research in recent years, including the identification of new physiological roles for tau in the brain. Here, we review the expression, post-translational modifications and functions of tau in physiology and in pathophysiology.