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The pattern of neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is very distinctive: neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) composed of hyperphosphorylated tau selectively affect pyramidal neurons of the aging association cortex that interconnect extensively through glutamate synapses on dendritic spines. In contrast, primary sensory cortices have few NFTs, even in late-stage disease. Understanding this selective vulnerability, and why advancing age is such a high risk factor for the degenerative process, may help to reveal disease etiology and provide targets for intervention. Our study has revealed age-related increase in cAMP-dependent protein kinase (PKA) phosphorylation of tau at serine 214 (pS214-tau) in monkey dorsolateral prefrontal association cortex (dlPFC), which specifically targets spine synapses and the Ca 2+ -storing spine apparatus. This increase is mirrored by loss of phosphodiesterase 4A from the spine apparatus, consistent with increase in cAMP-Ca 2+ signaling in aging spines. Phosphorylated tau was not detected in primary visual cortex, similar to the pattern observed in AD. We also report electron microscopic evidence of previously unidentified vesicular trafficking of phosphorylated tau in normal association cortex-in axons in young dlPFC vs. in spines in aged dlPFC-consistent with the transneuronal lesion spread reported in genetic rodent models. pS214-Tau was not observed in normal aged mice, suggesting that it arises with the evolutionary expansion of corticocortical connections in primates, crossing the threshold into NFTs and degeneration in humans. Thus, the cAMP-Ca 2+ signaling mechanisms, needed for flexibly modulating network strength in young association cortex, confer vulnerability to degeneration when dysregulated with advancing age.

Original publication




Journal article


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Publication Date