Mutations in microtubule-associated protein tau recently have been identified in familial cases of frontotemporal dementia (FTD). We report the frequency of tau mutations in a large population-based study of FTD carried out in the Netherlands from January 1994 to June 1998. Thirty-seven patients had >/=1 first-degree relative with dementia. A mutation in the tau gene was found in 17.8% of the group of patients with FTD and in 43% of patients with FTD who also had a positive family history of FTD. Three distinct missense mutations (G272V, P301L, R406W) accounted for 15.6% of the mutations. These three missense mutations, and a single amino acid deletion (DeltaK280) that was detected in one patient, strongly reduce the ability of tau to promote microtubule assembly. We also found an intronic mutation at position +33 after exon 9, which is likely to affect the alternative splicing of tau. Tau mutations are responsible for a large proportion of familial FTD cases; however, there are also families with FTD in which no mutations in tau have been found, which indicates locus and/or allelic heterogeneity. The different tau mutations may result in disturbances in the interactions of the protein tau with microtubules, resulting in hyperphosphorylation of tau protein, assembly into filaments, and subsequent cell death.