Using immunohistochemistry, we examined the localization of four types of proline-directed kinases in the brains of control rats and in the brains of non-demented aged human subjects, subjects with Alzheimer's disease and those with Down's syndrome. The four kinases were: cyclin-dependent kinase (cdk) 5, a component of tau protein kinase (TPK) II; TPK I/glycogen synthase kinase (GSK)-3 beta; GSK-3 alpha; and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK/ERK2). Each of these kinases has been reported to promote the hyperphosphorylation of tau protein in vitro. The kinases were located essentially in neurons, although the intensity and distribution of labeling varied. Antiserum for cdk5 showed the most preferential and consistent labeling of intraneuronal neurofibrillary tangles (NFT). Antiserum for TPK I/GSK-3 beta also labeled intraneuronal NFT. Double immunolabeling for TPK I/GSK-3 beta and tau 1 showed that TPK I/GSK-3 beta was closely associated with NFT. Antiserum for GSK-3 alpha labeled neurons weakly, and the intensity of labeling did not differ between neurons with and without NFT. Antiserum for MAPK labeled neurons in superficial cortical layers, but NFT appeared in both superficial and deep cortical layers. These findings suggest that cdk5 and TPK I/GSK-3 beta are the critically important kinases for the generation in vivo of hyperphosphorylated tau, the main component of the paired helical filaments in NFT.