Plasma phosphorylated-tau181 (p-tau181) showed the potential for Alzheimer’s diagnosis and prognosis, but its role in detecting cerebral pathologies is unclear. We aimed to evaluate whether it could serve as a marker for Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain. A total of 1189 participants with plasma p-tau181 and PET data of amyloid, tau or FDG PET were included from ADNI. Cross-sectional relationships of plasma p-tau181 with PET biomarkers were tested. Longitudinally, we further investigated whether different p-tau181 levels at baseline predicted different progression of Alzheimer’s pathological changes in the brain. We found plasma p-tau181 significantly correlated with brain amyloid (Spearman ρ = 0.45, P < 0.0001), tau (0.25, P = 0.0003), and FDG PET uptakes (−0.37, P < 0.0001), and increased along the Alzheimer’s continuum. Individually, plasma p-tau181 could detect abnormal amyloid, tau pathologies and hypometabolism in the brain, similar with or even better than clinical indicators. The diagnostic accuracy of plasma p-tau181 elevated significantly when combined with clinical information (AUC = 0.814 for amyloid PET, 0.773 for tau PET, and 0.708 for FDG PET). Relationships of plasma p-tau181 with brain pathologies were partly or entirely mediated by the corresponding CSF biomarkers. Besides, individuals with abnormal plasma p-tau181 level (>18.85 pg/ml) at baseline had a higher risk of pathological progression in brain amyloid (HR: 2.32, 95%CI 1.32–4.08) and FDG PET (3.21, 95%CI 2.06–5.01) status. Plasma p-tau181 may be a sensitive screening test for detecting brain pathologies, and serve as a predictive biomarker for Alzheimer’s pathophysiology.