Theranostics 2019; 9(13):3754-3767. doi:10.7150/thno.34388

Research Paper

Repeated ultrasound treatment of tau transgenic mice clears neuronal tau by autophagy and improves behavioral functions

Rucha Pandit, Gerhard Leinenga, Jürgen Götz

Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research, Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia.

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Pandit R, Leinenga G, Götz J. Repeated ultrasound treatment of tau transgenic mice clears neuronal tau by autophagy and improves behavioral functions. Theranostics 2019; 9(13):3754-3767. doi:10.7150/thno.34388. Available from

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Intracellular deposits of pathological tau are the hallmark of a broad spectrum of neurodegenerative disorders collectively known as tauopathies, with Alzheimer's disease, a secondary tauopathy, being further characterized by extracellular amyloid plaques. A major obstacle in developing effective treatments for tauopathies is the presence of the blood-brain barrier, which restricts the access of therapeutic agents to the brain. An emerging technology to overcome this limitation is the application of low-intensity ultrasound which, together with intravenously injected microbubbles, transiently opens the blood-brain barrier, thereby facilitating the delivery of therapeutic agents into the brain. Interestingly, even in the absence of therapeutic agents, ultrasound has previously been shown to reduce amyloid plaques and improve cognitive functions in amyloid-depositing mice through microglial clearance. Ultrasound has also been shown to facilitate the delivery of antibody fragments against pathological tau in P301L tau transgenic mice; however, the effect of ultrasound alone has not been thoroughly investigated in a tauopathy mouse model.

Methods: Here, we performed repeated scanning ultrasound treatments over a period of 15 weeks in K369I tau transgenic mice with an early-onset tau-related motor and memory phenotype. We used immunohistochemical and biochemical methods to analyze the effect of ultrasound on the mice and determine the underlying mechanism of action, together with an analysis of their motor and memory functions following repeated ultrasound treatments.

Results: Repeated ultrasound treatments significantly reduced tau pathology in the absence of histological damage. Associated impaired motor functions showed improvement towards the end of the treatment regime, with memory functions showing a trend towards improvement. In assessing potential clearance mechanisms, we ruled out a role for ubiquitination of tau, a prerequisite for proteasomal clearance. However, the treatment regime induced the autophagy pathway in neurons as reflected by an increase in the autophagosome membrane marker LC3II and a reduction in the autophagic flux marker p62, along with a decrease of mTOR activity and an increase in beclin 1 levels. Moreover, there was a significant increase in the interaction of tau and p62 in the ultrasound-treated mice, suggesting removal of tau by autophagosomes.

Conclusions: Our findings indicate that a neuronal protein aggregate clearance mechanism induced by ultrasound-mediated blood-brain barrier opening operates for tau, further supporting the potential of low-intensity ultrasound to treat neurodegenerative disorders.

Keywords: Autophagy, blood-brain barrier, therapeutic ultrasound, protein aggregation disorders, tau