Oligomerization of tau is a key process contributing to the progressive death of neurons in Alzheimer’s disease. Tau is modified by O-linked N-acetylglucosamine (O-GlcNAc), and O-GlcNAc can influence tau phosphorylation in certain cases. We therefore speculated that increasing tau O-GlcNAc could be a strategy to hinder pathological tau-induced neurodegeneration. Here we found that treatment of hemizygous JNPL3 tau transgenic mice with an O-GlcNAcase inhibitor increased tau O-GlcNAc, hindered formation of tau aggregates and decreased neuronal cell loss. Notably, increases in tau O-GlcNAc did not alter tau phosphorylation in vivo. Using in vitro biochemical aggregation studies, we found that O-GlcNAc modification, on its own, hinders tau oligomerization. O-GlcNAc also inhibits thermally induced aggregation of an unrelated protein, TAK-1 binding protein, suggesting that a basic biochemical function of O-GlcNAc may be to prevent protein aggregation. These results also suggest O-GlcNAcase as a potential therapeutic target that could hinder progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: Yuzwa, S.A. et al. Nat Chem Biol 8, 393-9 (2012).