Tau biomarkers in Alzheimer's disease: towards implementation in clinical practice and trials

Rik Ossenkoppele, Rik van der Kant, Oskar Hansson

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Deposition of tau aggregates is a pathological hallmark of Alzheimer's disease that is closely linked both spatially and temporally to emergence of neurodegeneration and manifestation of clinical symptoms. There is an urgent need for accurate PET, CSF, and plasma biomarkers of tau pathology to improve the diagnostic process in clinical practice and the selection of participants and monitoring of treatment effects in trials. Recent developments: Innovative second-generation tau-PET tracers with high affinity and selectivity to tau pathology in Alzheimer's disease have enabled detection of tau pathology in medial temporal lobe subregions that are affected in the earliest disease stages. Furthermore, novel but common tau spreading subtypes have been discovered using tau-PET, suggesting much greater interindividual differences in the distribution of tau pathology across the brain than previously assumed. In the CSF biomarker field, novel phosphorylated tau (p-tau) assays have been introduced that better reflect tau tangle load than established CSF biomarkers of tau pathology. The advent of cost-effective and accessible blood-based biomarkers for tau pathophysiology (ie, p-tau181, p-tau217, and p-tau231) might transform the Alzheimer's disease field, as these biomarkers correlate with post-mortem Alzheimer's disease pathology, differentiate Alzheimer's disease from other types of dementia, and predict future progression from normal cognition and mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease. In controlled investigational settings, improvements in tau-PET and biofluid p-tau markers have led to earlier disease detection, more accurate diagnostic methods, and refinement of prognosis. The anti-tau therapy landscape is rapidly evolving, with multiple ongoing phase 1 and 2 trials of post-translational modification of tau, tau immunotherapy, tau aggregation inhibitors, and targeting production of tau and reduction of intracellular tau levels. Neuroimaging and biofluid tau markers hold potential for optimising such clinical trials by augmenting participant selection, providing evidence of target engagement, and monitoring treatment efficacy. Where next?: Major challenges to overcome are the high cost of tau-PET, partial sensitivity to detect early-stage Alzheimer's disease pathology, and off-target tracer binding. Prospective validation studies of biofluid p-tau markers are needed, and assay-related preanalytical and analytical factors need further refinement. Future studies should focus on demonstrating the diagnostic and prognostic accuracy of tau biomarkers—blood-based markers in particular—in non-tertiary settings, such as primary care, which is characterised by a diverse population with medical comorbidities. Large-scale head-to-head studies are needed across different stages of Alzheimer's disease to determine which tau biomarker is optimal in various clinical scenarios, such as early diagnosis, differential diagnosis, and prognosis, and for aspects of clinical trial design, such as proving target engagement, optimising participant selection, and refining monitoring of treatment effects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)726-734
Number of pages9
JournalThe Lancet Neurology
Issue number8
Early online date25 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2022

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