Histologic lesion type correlates of magnetic resonance imaging biomarkers in four-repeat tauopathies

Arenn F. Carlos, Nirubol Tosakulwong, Stephen D. Weigand, Marina Buciuc, Farwa Ali, Heather M. Clark, Hugo Botha, Rene L. Utianski, Mary M. Machulda, Christopher G. Schwarz, Robert I. Reid, Matthew L. Senjem, Clifford R. Jack, J. Eric Ahlskog, Dennis W. Dickson, Keith A. Josephs, Jennifer L. Whitwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Primary four-repeat tauopathies are characterized by depositions of the four-repeat isoform of the microtubule binding protein, tau. The two most common sporadic four-repeat tauopathies are progressive supranuclear palsy and corticobasal degeneration. Because tau PET tracers exhibit poor binding affinity to four-repeat pathology, determining how well in vivo MRI findings relate to underlying pathology is critical to evaluating their utility as surrogate markers to aid in diagnosis and as outcome measures for clinical trials. We studied the relationship of cross-sectional imaging findings, such as MRI volume loss and diffusion tensor imaging white matter tract abnormalities, to tau histopathology in four-repeat tauopathies. Forty-seven patients with antemortem 3T MRI volumetric and diffusion tensor imaging scans plus post-mortem pathological diagnosis of a four-repeat tauopathy (28 progressive supranuclear palsy; 19 corticobasal degeneration) were included in the study. Tau lesion types (pretangles/neurofibrillary tangles, neuropil threads, coiled bodies, astrocytic lesions) were semiquantitatively graded in disease-specific cortical, subcortical and brainstem regions. Antemortem regional volumes, fractional anisotropy and mean diffusivity were modelled using linear regression with post-mortem tau lesion scores considered separately, based on cellular type (neuronal versus glial), or summed (total tau). Results showed that greater total tau burden was associated with volume loss in the subthalamic nucleus (P = 0.001), midbrain (P < 0.001), substantia nigra (P = 0.03) and red nucleus (P = 0.004), with glial lesions substantially driving the associations. Decreased fractional anisotropy and increased mean diffusivity in the superior cerebellar peduncle correlated with glial tau in the cerebellar dentate (P = 0.04 and P = 0.02, respectively) and red nucleus (P < 0.001 for both). Total tau and glial pathology also correlated with increased mean diffusivity in the midbrain (P = 0.02 and P < 0.001, respectively). Finally, increased subcortical white matter mean diffusivity was associated with total tau in superior frontal and precentral cortices (each, P = 0.02). Overall, results showed clear relationships between antemortem MRI changes and pathology in four-repeat tauopathies. Our findings show that brain volume could be a useful surrogate marker of tau pathology in subcortical and brainstem regions, whereas white matter integrity could be a useful marker of tau pathology in cortical regions. Our findings also suggested an important role of glial tau lesions in the pathogenesis of neurodegeneration in four-repeat tauopathies. Thus, development of tau PET tracers selectively binding to glial tau lesions could potentially uncover mechanisms of disease progression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberfcac108
JournalBrain Communications
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2022


  • 4R tauopathy
  • DTI
  • biomarkers
  • tau lesions
  • volumetric MRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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