Background: Neuroimaging studies often quantify tau burden in standardized brain regions to assess Alzheimer disease (AD) progression. However, this method ignores another key biological process in which tau spreads to additional brain regions. We have developed a metric for calculating the extent tau pathology has spread throughout the brain and evaluate the relationship between this metric and tau burden across early stages of AD. Methods: 445 cross-sectional participants (aged ≥ 50) who had MRI, amyloid PET, tau PET, and clinical testing were separated into disease-stage groups based on amyloid positivity and cognitive status (older cognitively normal control, preclinical AD, and symptomatic AD). Tau burden and tau spatial spread were calculated for all participants. Findings: We found both tau metrics significantly elevated across increasing disease stages (p < 0.0001) and as a function of increasing amyloid burden for participants with preclinical (p < 0.0001, p = 0.0056) and symptomatic (p = 0.010, p = 0.0021) AD. An interaction was found between tau burden and tau spatial spread when predicting amyloid burden (p = 0.00013). Analyses of slope between tau metrics demonstrated more spread than burden in preclinical AD (β = 0.59), but then tau burden elevated relative to spread (β = 0.42) once participants had symptomatic AD, when the tau metrics became highly correlated (R = 0.83). Interpretation: Tau burden and tau spatial spread are both strong biomarkers for early AD but provide unique information, particularly at the preclinical stage. Tau spatial spread may demonstrate earlier changes than tau burden which could have broad impact in clinical trial design. Funding: This research was supported by the Knight Alzheimer Disease Research Center (Knight ADRC, NIH grants P30AG066444, P01AG026276, P01AG003991), Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network (DIAN, NIH grants U01AG042791, U19AG03243808, R01AG052550-01A1, R01AG05255003), and the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation Willman Scholar Fund.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105080
StatePublished - May 2024


  • Alzheimer disease
  • Positron emission tomography
  • Tau propagation
  • Tau spread


Dive into the research topics of 'Deconstructing pathological tau by biological process in early stages of Alzheimer disease: a method for quantifying tau spatial spread in neuroimaging'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this