Ultrastructural instability of paired helical filaments from corticobasal degeneration as examined by scanning transmission electron microscopy

Hanna Ksiezak-Reding, Elizabeth Tracz, Liang Sheng Yang, Dennis W. Dickson, Martha Simon, Joseph S. Wall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Paired helical filaments (PHFs) accumulate in the brains of subjects affected with Alzheimer's disease (AD) and certain other neurodegenerative disorders, including corticobasal degeneration (CBD). Electron microscope studies have shown that PHFs from CBD differ from those of AD by being wider and having a longer periodicity of the helical twist. Moreover, PHFs from CBD have been shown to be primarily composed of two rather than three highly phosphorylated polypeptides of tau (PHF-tau), with these polypeptides expressing no exons 3 and 10. To further explore the relationship between the heterogeneity of PHF-tau and the appearance of abnormal filaments, the ultrastructure and physical parameters such as mass per unit length and dimensions were compared in filaments from CBD and AD using high resolution scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM). Filament-enriched fractions were isolated as Sarcosyl-insoluble pellets and for STEM studies, samples were freeze-dried without prior fixation or staining. Ultrastructurally, PHFs from CBD were shown to be a heterogeneous population as double- and single- stranded filaments could be identified based on their width and physical mass per unit length expressed in kilodaltons (kd) per nanometer (nm). Less abundant, double-stranded filaments had a maximal width of 29 nm and a mass per unit length of 133 kd/nm, whereas three times more abundant single- stranded filaments were 15 nm wide and had a mass per unit length of 62 kd/nm. Double-stranded filaments also displayed a distinct axial region of less dense mass, which appeared to divide the PHFs into two protofilament- like strands. Furthermore, these filaments were frequently observed to physically separate along the long axis into two single strands or to break longitudinally. In contrast, PHFs from AD were ultrastructurally stable and uniform both in their width (22 nm) and physical mass per unit length (104 kd/nm). The ultrastructural features indicate that filaments of CBD and AD differ both in stability and packing of tau and that CBD filaments, composed of two distinct protofilaments, are more labile under STEM conditions. As fixed and stained filaments from CBD have been shown to be stable and uniform in size by conventional transmission electron microscopy, STEM studies may be particularly suitable for detecting instability of unstained and unfixed filaments. The results also suggest that molecular heterogeneity and/or post- translational modifications of tau may strongly influence the morphology and stability of abnormal filaments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)639-651
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Journal of Pathology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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