How senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are linked represents a major gap in our understanding of the pathophysiology of Alzheimer's disease. We characterized a hippocampal neuronal culture system in which tau undergoes maturation in vivo; rat neurons maintained in culture for more than 3 weeks replicated the splicing and phosphorylation changes that tau undergoes upon maturation in situ. Using this model system, we induced an Alzheimer-like neuritic dystrophy following the application of fibrillar beta-amyloid. The dystrophy consisted of focal distortions and swellings within the neurites and an altered phosphorylation of the adult tau isoforms. Fibrillar beta-amyloid induced the concomitant activation of MAP kinase and GSK3 beta. The aberrant activation of several signaling pathways may lead to the abnormal phosphorylation of tau and neuritic degeneration.