SH-SY5Y-derived neurons: a human neuronal model system for investigating TAU sorting and neuronal subtype-specific TAU vulnerability

Rev Neurosci. 2021 Apr 19;33(1):1-15. doi: 10.1515/revneuro-2020-0152. Print 2022 Jan 27.


The microtubule-associated protein (MAP) TAU is mainly sorted into the axon of healthy brain neurons. Somatodendritic missorting of TAU is a pathological hallmark of many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease (AD). Cause, consequence and (patho)physiological mechanisms of TAU sorting and missorting are understudied, in part also because of the lack of readily available human neuronal model systems. The human neuroblastoma cell line SH-SY5Y is widely used for studying TAU physiology and TAU-related pathology in AD and related tauopathies. SH-SY5Y cells can be differentiated into neuron-like cells (SH-SY5Y-derived neurons) using various substances. This review evaluates whether SH-SY5Y-derived neurons are a suitable model for (i) investigating intracellular TAU sorting in general, and (ii) with respect to neuron subtype-specific TAU vulnerability. (I) SH-SY5Y-derived neurons show pronounced axodendritic polarity, high levels of axonally localized TAU protein, expression of all six human brain isoforms and TAU phosphorylation similar to the human brain. As SH-SY5Y cells are highly proliferative and readily accessible for genetic engineering, stable transgene integration and leading-edge genome editing are feasible. (II) SH-SY5Y-derived neurons display features of subcortical neurons early affected in many tauopathies. This allows analyzing brain region-specific differences in TAU physiology, also in the context of differential vulnerability to TAU pathology. However, several limitations should be considered when using SH-SY5Y-derived neurons, e.g., the lack of clearly defined neuronal subtypes, or the difficulty of mimicking age-related tauopathy risk factors in vitro. In brief, this review discusses the suitability of SH-SY5Y-derived neurons for investigating TAU (mis)sorting mechanisms and neuron-specific TAU vulnerability in disease paradigms.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; cell polarity; SH-SY5Y cells; TAU sorting; neuronal identity; tauopathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease* / metabolism
  • Axons / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Phosphorylation
  • tau Proteins* / metabolism


  • tau Proteins