The dendritic spines on pyramidal cells represent the main postsynaptic elements of cortical excitatory synapses and they are fundamental structures in memory, learning and cognition. In the present study, we used intracellular injections of Lucifer yellow in fixed tissue to analyse over 19 500 dendritic spines that were completely reconstructed in three dimensions along the length of the basal dendrites of pyramidal neurons in the parahippocampal cortex and CA1 of patients with Alzheimer's disease. Following intracellular injection, sections were immunostained for anti-Lucifer yellow and with tau monoclonal antibodies AT8 and PHF-1, which recognize tau phosphorylated at Ser202/Thr205 and at Ser396/404, respectively. We observed that the diffuse accumulation of phospho-tau in a putative pre-tangle state did not induce changes in the dendrites of pyramidal neurons, whereas the presence of tau aggregates forming intraneuronal neurofibrillary tangles was associated with progressive alteration of dendritic spines (loss of dendritic spines and changes in their morphology) and dendrite atrophy, depending on the degree of tangle development. Thus, the presence of phospho-tau in neurons does not necessarily mean that they suffer severe and irreversible effects as thought previously but rather, the characteristic cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's disease is likely to depend on the relative number of neurons that have well developed tangles.
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