Studying Microtubule Dynamics in Human Neurons: Two-Dimensional Microtubule Tracing and Kymographs in iPSC- and SH-SY5Y-Derived Neurons for Tau Research

Methods Mol Biol. 2024:2754:561-580. doi: 10.1007/978-1-0716-3629-9_33.


The study of microtubule (MT) dynamics is essential for the understanding of cellular transport, cell polarity, axon formation, and other neurodevelopmental mechanisms. All these processes rely on the constant transition between assembly and disassembly of tubulin polymers to/from MTs, known as dynamic instability. This process is well-regulated, among others, by phosphorylation of microtubule-associated proteins (MAP), including the Tau protein. Protein kinases, in particular the microtubule affinity regulating kinase (MARK), regulate the MT-Tau interaction, inducing Tau dissociation by phosphorylation. Phosphorylated Tau dissociates from microtubules forming insoluble aggregates known as neurofibrillary tangles. These accumulations of hyperphosphorylated Tau in the neurons disrupt the physiological MT-based transport machinery within the cell and can potentially lead to the development of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) and related tauopathies. Further investigations on the MT cytoskeleton dynamics are essential as they may elucidate pathomechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases - particularly tauopathies - as well as fundamental neurodevelopmental processes.The study of the dynamic assembly and disassembly of the MT network requires live-cell imaging rather than conventional immunocytochemistry based on fixed samples. To investigate MT dynamics, we perform live-cell imaging of neurons transfected with a fluorescently tagged version of the microtubule plus-end tracking protein (+TIP) EB3. This protein associates with the growing ends of MTs and thus visualizes MT growth in real time. Our imaging analysis protocol allows the determination of quantity, orientation, and velocity of MT growth in the soma and neurites of transfected neurons, using ImageJ-based tracking software and kymographs. Furthermore, functional effects of Tau and MARK kinases on the MT cytoskeleton can be assessed by overexpression or downregulation experiments of the respective protein prior to the live imaging assay. We use two different human neuronal cell models, naive and differentiated SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells, and neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), both of which have shown success as models to study Tau-related pathologies.This protocol describes an optimized method for analysis of microtubule dynamics using fluorescent tagged EB3 protein as microtubule plus end marker. In this chapter, we outline the process of neuronal transfection, live-cell imaging, and necessary time-lapse image analysis based on ImageJ in two human-derived neuronal systems, which are suitable for the analysis of Tau trafficking and sorting studies.

Keywords: EB3EB3; Human neuron; Live-cell imagingLive-cell imaging; Microtubule dynamics; Tau.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells* / metabolism
  • Microtubules / metabolism
  • Neuroblastoma* / metabolism
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases* / metabolism
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Tauopathies* / metabolism
  • tau Proteins / metabolism


  • tau Proteins