Background: Paired helical filaments (PHFs) are a characteristic pathological feature of Alzheimer's disease; their principal component is the microtubule-associated protein tau. The tau in PHFs (PHF-tau) is hyperphosphorylated, but the cellular mechanisms responsible for this hyperphosphorylation have yet to be elucidated. A number of kinases, including mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase, glycogen synthase kinase (GSK)-3 alpha, GSK-3 beta and cyclin-dependent kinase-5, phosphorylate recombinant tau in vitro so that it resembles PHF-tau as judged by its reactivity with a panel of antibodies capable of discriminating between normal tau and PHF-tau, and by a reduced electrophoretic mobility that is characteristic of PHF-tau. To determine whether MAP kinase, GSK-3 alpha and GSK-3 beta can also induce Alzheimer's disease-like phosphorylation of tau in mammalian cells, we studied the phosphorylation status of tau in primary neuronal cultures and transfected COS cells following changes in the activities of MAP kinase and GSK-3.
Results: Activating MAP kinase in cultures of primary neurons or transfected COS cells expressing tau isoforms did not increase the level of phosphorylation for any PHF-tau epitope investigated. But elevating GSK-3 activity in the COS cells by co-transfection with GSK-3 alpha or GSK-3 beta decreased the electrophoretic mobility of tau so that it resembled that of PHF-tau, and induced reactivity with eight PHF-tau-selective monoclonal antibodies.
Conclusions: Our data indicate that GSK-3 alpha and/or GSK-3 beta, but not MAP kinase, are good candidates for generating PHF-type phosphorylation of tau in Alzheimer's disease. The involvement of other kinases in the generation of PHFs cannot, however, be eliminated. Our results suggest that aberrant regulation of GSK-3 may be a pathogenic mechanism in Alzheimer's disease.