Primate retinal cones express phosphorylated tau associated with neuronal degeneration yet survive in old age

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Photoreceptor cells have high energy demands and suffer significantly with age. In aged rodents both rods and cones are lost, but in primates there is no evidence for aged cone loss, although their function declines. Here we ask if aged primate cones suffer from reduced function because of declining metabolic ability. Tau is a microtubule associated protein critical for mitochondrial function in neurons. Its phosphorylation is a feature of neuronal degeneration undermining respiration and mitochondrial dynamics. We show that total tau is widely distributed in the primate outer retina with little age-related change, being present in both rods and cones and their processes. However, all cones specifically accumulate phosphorylated tau, which was not seen in rods. The presence of this protein will likely undermine cone cell function. However, tau phosphorylation inhibits apoptosis. These data may explain why aged primate cones have reduced function but appear to be resistant to cell death. Consequently, therapies designed to remove phosphorylated tau may carry the risk of inducing cone photoreceptor cell death and further undermine ageing visual function.

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