Primary supranuclear palsy (PSP) is a rare neurodegenerative disease that perturbs body movement, eye movement, and walking balance. Similar to Alzheimer's disease (AD), the abnormal aggregation of tau fibrils in the central neuronal and glial cells is a major hallmark of PSP disease. In this study, we use multiple approaches, including docking, molecular dynamics, and metadynamics simulations, to investigate the binding mechanism of 10 first- and second-generations of PET tracers for PSP tau and compare their binding in cortical basal degeneration (CBD) and AD tauopathies. Structure-activity relationships, binding preferences, the nature of ligand binding in terms of basic intermolecular interactions, the role of polar/charged residues, induced-fit mechanisms, grove closures, and folding patterns for the binding of these tracers in PSP, CBD, and AD tau fibrils are evaluated and discussed in detail in order to build a holistic picture of what is essential for the binding and also to rank the potency of the different tracers. For example, we found that the same tracer shows different binding preferences for the surface sites of tau fibrils that are intrinsically distinct in the folding patterns. Results from the metadynamics simulations predict that PMPBB3 and PBB3 exhibit the strongest binding free energies onto the Q276[I277]I278, Q351[S352]K353, and N368[K369]K370 sites of PSP than the other explored tracers, indicating a solid preference for vdW and cation-π interactions. Our results also reproduced known preferences of tracers, namely, that MK6240 binds better to AD tau than CBD tau and PSP tau and that CBD2115, PI2620, and PMPBB3 are 4R tau binders. These findings fill in the well-sought-after knowledge gap in terms of these tracers' potential binding mechanisms and will be important for the design of highly selective novel PET tracers for tauopathies.
Keywords: 4R tau fibrils; Alzheimer disease; free energy surface; metadynamics; molecular dynamics; positron emission tomography tracer.