27 December 2022

Brain-derived tau: a novel blood-based biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease-type neurodegeneration


Blood-based biomarkers for amyloid beta and phosphorylated tau show good diagnostic accuracies and agreements with their corresponding CSF and neuroimaging biomarkers in the amyloid/tau/neurodegeneration [A/T/ (N)] framework for Alzheimer’s disease. However, the blood-based neurodegeneration marker neurofilament light is not specific to Alzheimer’s disease while total-tau shows lack of correlation with CSF total-tau. Recent studies suggest that blood total-tau originates principally from peripheral, non-brain sources.

We sought to address this challenge by generating an anti-tau antibody that selectively binds brain-derived tau and avoids the peripherally expressed ‘big tau’ isoform. We applied this antibody to develop an ultrasensitive blood-based assay for brain-derived tau, and validated it in five independent cohorts (n = 609) including a blood-to-autopsy cohort, CSF biomarker-classified cohorts and memory clinic cohorts.

In paired samples, serum and CSF brain-derived tau were significantly correlated (rho = 0.85, P < 0.0001), while serum and CSF total-tau were not (rho = 0.23, P = 0.3364). Blood-based brain-derived tau showed equivalent diagnostic performance as CSF total-tau and CSF brain-derived tau to separate biomarker-positive Alzheimer’s disease participants from biomarker-negative controls. Furthermore, plasma brain-derived tau accurately distinguished autopsy-con- firmed Alzheimer’s disease from other neurodegenerative diseases (area under the curve = 86.4%) while neurofilament light did not (area under the curve=54.3%). These performances were independent of the presence of concomitant pathologies. Plasma brain-derived tau (rho=0.52–0.67, P=0.003), but not neurofilament light (rho= −0.14–0.17, P=0.501), was associated with global and regional amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangle counts. These results were further verified in two memory clinic cohorts where serum brain-derived tau differentiated Alzheimer’s disease from a range of other neurodegenerative disorders, including frontotemporal lobar degeneration and atypical parkinsonian disorders (area under the curve up to 99.6%). Notably, plasma/serum brain-derived tau correlated with neurofilament light only in Alzheimer’s disease but not in the other neurodegenerative diseases. Across cohorts, plasma/serum brain-derived tau was associated with CSF and plasma AT(N) biomarkers and cognitive function.

Brain-derived tau is a new blood-based biomarker that outperforms plasma total-tau and, unlike neurofilament light, shows specificity to Alzheimer’s disease-type neurodegeneration. Thus, brain-derived tau demonstrates potential to complete the AT(N) scheme in blood, and will be useful to evaluate Alzheimer’s disease-dependent neurodegenerative processes for clinical and research purposes.