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Blood phosphorylated tau 181 as a biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease: a diagnostic performance and prediction modelling study using data from four prospective cohorts

Thomas K Karikari, PhD *Tharick A Pascoal, MD *Nicholas J Ashton, PhD

Shorena Janelidze, PhDAndréa Lessa Benedet, MScJuan Lantero Rodriguez, MSc et al.



CSF and PET biomarkers of amyloid β and tau accurately detect Alzheimer’s disease pathology, but the invasiveness, high cost, and poor availability of these detection methods restrict their widespread use as clinical diagnostic tools. CSF tau phosphorylated at threonine 181 (p-tau181) is a highly specific biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease pathology. We aimed to assess whether blood p-tau181 could be used as a biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease and for prediction of cognitive decline and hippocampal atrophy.


We developed and validated an ultrasensitive blood immunoassay for p-tau181. Assay performance was evaluated in four clinic-based prospective cohorts. The discovery cohort comprised patients with Alzheimer’s disease and age-matched controls. Two validation cohorts (TRIAD and BioFINDER-2) included cognitively unimpaired older adults (mean age 63–69 years), participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), Alzheimer’s disease, and frontotemporal dementia. In addition, TRIAD included healthy young adults (mean age 23 years) and BioFINDER-2 included patients with other neurodegenerative disorders. The primary care cohort, which recruited participants in Montreal, Canada, comprised control participants from the community without a diagnosis of a neurological condition and patients referred from primary care physicians of the Canadian National Health Service for specialist care. Concentrations of plasma p-tau181 were compared with established CSF and PET biomarkers and longitudinal measurements using Spearman correlation, area under the curve (AUC), and linear regression analyses.


We studied 37 individuals in the discovery cohort, 226 in the first validation cohort (TRIAD), 763 in the second validation cohort (BioFINDER-2), and 105 in the primary care cohort (n=1131 individuals). In all cohorts, plasma p-tau181 showed gradual increases along the Alzheimer’s disease continuum, from the lowest concentrations in amyloid β-negative young adults and cognitively unimpaired older adults, through higher concentrations in the amyloid β-positive cognitively unimpaired older adults and MCI groups, to the highest concentrations in the amyloid β-positive MCI and Alzheimer’s disease groups (p<0·001, Alzheimer’s disease vs all other groups). Plasma p-tau181 distinguished Alzheimer’s disease dementia from amyloid β-negative young adults (AUC=99·40%) and cognitively unimpaired older adults (AUC=90·21–98·24% across cohorts), as well as other neurodegenerative disorders, including frontotemporal dementia (AUC=82·76–100% across cohorts), vascular dementia (AUC=92·13%), progressive supranuclear palsy or corticobasal syndrome (AUC=88·47%), and Parkinson’s disease or multiple systems atrophy (AUC=81·90%). Plasma p-tau181 was associated with PET-measured cerebral tau (AUC=83·08–93·11% across cohorts) and amyloid β (AUC=76·14–88·09% across cohorts) pathologies, and 1-year cognitive decline (p=0·0015) and hippocampal atrophy (p=0·015). In the primary care cohort, plasma p-tau181 discriminated Alzheimer’s disease from young adults (AUC=100%) and cognitively unimpaired older adults (AUC=84·44%), but not from MCI (AUC=55·00%).


Blood p-tau181 can predict tau and amyloid β pathologies, differentiate Alzheimer’s disease from other neurodegenerative disorders, and identify Alzheimer’s disease across the clinical continuum. Blood p-tau181 could be used as a simple, accessible, and scalable test for screening and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.