Get access

Tau and HMW tau phosphorylation and compartmentalization in apoptotic neuronal PC12 cells


  • Shirley B. Shelton,

    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Gail V.W. Johnson

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama
    • Department of Psychiatry and Neurobiology, Sparks Center Rm. 1061C, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294-0017
    Search for more papers by this author


In the Alzheimer disease brain, the microtubule-associated protein tau is hyperphosphorylated. There is also evidence that apoptotic-like processes may contribute to the neuronal loss in AD. In an apoptotic model that involves replating neuronal PC12 cells without serum and nerve growth factor (NGF), tau was hyperphosphorylated. During replating, however, neurites are removed. Here, differentiated cells were maintained in serum-free media before growth factor removal, thus maintaining neuritic processes during the apoptotic process and allowing for evaluation of neuritic changes. Tau phosphorylation, evaluated by immunoblotting and immunocytochemistry, was compared with various measures of cell death. Compared with control, NGF-deprived cells exhibited gradual and consistent increases of lactate dehydrogenase release over a 5-day period and a peak of caspase-3 activity at Day 2 after NGF removal. Nuclear staining demonstrated chromatin condensation in NGF-deprived cells. Apoptotic cells had thickened, tortuous, and shortened neuritic processes compared with control cells. Immunoblotting showed an increase in both tau and high molecular weight (HMW) tau phosphorylation during the apoptotic process. Immunoreactivity of both tau isoforms shifted from the detergent insoluble cytoskeleton to the detergent soluble compartment in the apoptotic cells. The microtubule binding of both tau isoforms from apoptotic cells also was impaired. Immunoblotting of purified plasma membrane showed preferential association of HMW tau with the plasma membrane during apoptosis. Also, plasma membrane-associated HMW tau was more phosphorylated during apoptosis. Immunocytochemistry demonstrated increased tau phosphorylation in most apoptotic cells, especially in the neurites. Tau was, however, dephosphorylated cells in the last stages of apoptosis. J. Neurosci. Res. 66:203–213, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.