See Bernasconi (doi:10.1093/aww202) for a scientific commentary on this article.
Temporal lobe epilepsy, the most prevalent form of chronic focal epilepsy, is associated with a high prevalence of cognitive impairment but the responsible underlying pathological mechanisms are unknown. Tau, the microtubule-associated protein, is a hallmark of several neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We hypothesized that hyperphosphorylated tau pathology is associated with cognitive decline in temporal lobe epilepsy and explored this through clinico-pathological study. We first performed pathological examination on tissue from 33 patients who had undergone temporal lobe resection between ages 50 and 65 years to treat drug-refractory temporal lobe epilepsy. We identified hyperphosphorylated tau protein using AT8 immunohistochemistry and compared this distribution to Braak patterns of Alzheimer’s disease and patterns of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We quantified tau pathology using a modified tau score created specifically for analysis of temporal lobectomy tissue and the Braak staging, which was limited without extra-temporal brain areas available. Next, we correlated tau pathology with pre- and postoperative cognitive test scores and clinical risk factors including age at time of surgery, duration of epilepsy, history of secondary generalized seizures, history of head injury, handedness and side of surgery. Thirty-one of 33 cases (94%) showed hyperphosphorylated tau pathology in the form of neuropil threads and neurofibrillary tangles and pre-tangles. Braak stage analysis showed 12% of our epilepsy cohort had a Braak staging III-IV compared to an age-matched non-epilepsy control group from the literature (8%). We identified a mixture of tau pathology patterns characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We also found unusual patterns of subpial tau deposition, sparing of the hippocampus and co-localization with mossy fibre sprouting, a feature of temporal lobe epilepsy. We demonstrated that the more extensive the tau pathology, the greater the decline in verbal learning (Spearman correlation, r = −0.63), recall (r = −0.44) and graded naming test scores (r = −0.50) over 1-year post-temporal lobe resection (P < 0.05). This relationship with tau burden was also present when examining decline in verbal learning from 3 months to 1 year post-resection (r = −0.54). We found an association between modified tau score and history of secondary generalized seizures (likelihood-ratio χ2, P < 0.05) however there was no clear relationship between tau pathology and other clinical risk factors assessed. Our findings suggest an epilepsy-related tauopathy in temporal lobe epilepsy, which contributes to accelerated cognitive decline and has diagnostic and treatment implications.