Characterization and super-resolution imaging of small tau aggregates in human samples


Hyperphosphorylation and aggregation of the microtubule binding protein tau plays a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. While the structure of the filamentous aggregates formed in humans has recently been determined to atomic resolution, there is far less information available about the smaller aggregate precursors, thought to be the most neurotoxic. To address this gap, we have developed a single molecule pull-down (SiMPull) able to detect tau aggregates in clinically relevant human samples. This method enables the detection and characterisation of individual tau aggregates, as opposed to averaged features obtained from traditional bulk techniques. We report the number, size and shape of individual aggregates measured via super-resolution microscopy, revealing disease-specific differences in tau aggregate morphology. By adapting the assay to simultaneously detect multiple phosphorylation sites in individual aggregates, we were also able to derive compositional profiles for pathological modifications present in individual aggregates. We demonstrate that tau aggregates in Alzheimer’s disease are significantly more likely to contain both the AT8 and T181 pathological phosphorylation markers, rather than only one. Together, tau SiMPull identified distinct subpopulations of large, modified tau aggregates that were invisible to traditional methodologies. These morphological and compositional differences distinguish samples taken from disease cohorts, offering to illuminate underlying disease mechanisms, and providing a foundation for novel diagnostic strategies.