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Functional networks are impaired by elevated tau-protein but reversible in a regulatable Alzheimer's disease mouse model

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Abstract

Background: Aggregation of tau proteins is a distinct hallmark of tauopathies and has been a focus of research and clinical trials for Alzheimer's Disease. Recent reports have pointed towards a toxic effect of soluble or oligomeric tau in the spreading of tau pathology in Alzheimer's disease. Here we investigated the effects of expressing human tau repeat domain (tauRD) with pro- or anti-aggregant mutations in regulatable transgenic mouse models of Alzheimer's Disease on the functional neuronal networks and the structural connectivity strength. Methods: Pro-aggregant and anti-aggregant mice were studied when their mutant tauRD was switched on for 12 months to reach the stage where pro-aggregant mice show cognitive impairment, whereas anti-aggregant mice remained cognitively normal. Then, mutant tauRD was switched off by doxycycline treatment for 8 weeks so that soluble transgenic tau disappeared and cognition recovered in the pro-aggregant mice, although some aggregates remained. At these two time points, at baseline after 12 months of mutant tau expression and after 8 weeks of doxycycline treatment, resting state fMRI and diffusion MRI were used to determine functional neuronal networks and fiber connectivities. Results of the transgenic mice were compared with wildtype littermates. Results: Functional connectivity was strongly reduced in transgenic animals during mutant tauRD expression, in relation to WT mice. Interestingly, transgenic mice with the non-aggregant tau mutant showed identical functional deficits as the pro-aggregant mice, even though in this case there was no cognitive decline by behavioral testing. Upon 8 weeks doxycycline treatment and transgene switch-off, functional connectivity in both transgenic groups presented complete normalization of functional connectivity strength, equivalent to the situation in WT littermates. Structural connectivity was found only marginally sensitive to mutant tau expression (both pro- and anti-aggregant tauRD) and by doxycycline treatment. Conclusions: Our in vivo investigations unravel for the first time a strong reduction of functional neuronal networks by the presence of increased soluble rather than fibrillary tau, independent of its intrinsic propensity of aggregation, which is reversible by switching tau off. Our functional MRI study thus is an unexpected in vivo validation of a novel property of tau, while previous results pointed to a role of aggregation propensity for a pathological state by histopathology and cognitive decline. Our results present further evidence for early tauopathy biomarkers or a potential early stage drug target by functional networks analysis.

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Green, C., Sydow, A., Vogel, S., Anglada-Huguet, M., Wiedermann, D., Mandelkow, E., … Hoehn, M. (2019). Functional networks are impaired by elevated tau-protein but reversible in a regulatable Alzheimer’s disease mouse model. Molecular Neurodegeneration, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13024-019-0316-6

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