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The mechanism(s) leading to widespread hyper-phosphorylation of proteins in Alzheimer's disease (AD) are unknown. We have characterized seven new monoclonal antibodies recognizing independent phospho- epitopes in the paired helical filament proteins (PHF) found in AD brain. These antibodies show pronounced immunoreactivity with cultured human neuroblastoma cells that are in the M phase of cell division, but have no discernible reactivity with interphase cells. Immunoreactivity with these antibodies does not localize to the microtubule spindles or chromosomes in M phase, but is confined to the surrounding cytoplasm. Similar staining in M phase is observed with cultured cells of various tissue types and species. Cells arrested in M phase with the microtubule depolymerizing agent, nocodazole, show marked increases in immunoreactivity with the antibodies by immunofluorescence staining, ELISA, and immunoblotting. In neuroblastoma cells, the appearance of the TG/MC phospho-epitopes coincides with activation of mitotic protein kinases, but not with the activity of the neuronal specific cyclin- dependent kinase, cdk5. These data suggest that the TG/MC epitopes are conserved mitotic phospho-epitopes produced as a result of increased mitotic kinase activity. To investigate this possibility in AD, we examined the staining of human brain tissue with MPM-2, a marker antibody for mitotic phospho-epitopes. It was found that MPM-2 reacts strongly with neurofibrillary tangles, neuritic processes, and neurons in AD but has no staining in normal human brain. Our data suggest that accumulation of phospho-epitopes in AD may result from activation of mitotic posttranslational mechanisms which do not normally operate in mature neurons of brain.