Not Your Father’s PSP

As it turns out, PSP comes in many clinical flavors. Back in the 80s I remember some patients whose illness looked like Parkinson’s until I realized that they weren’t responding to my levodopa prescriptions, at which point I repeated a careful ocular motor exam and found square wave jerks and slow downward saccades. I also remember one member of my first series of 41 patients with PSP from 1988 with severe gait apraxia and freezing as his most disabling feature.
Then, in 2005, David Williams and colleagues, mentored by Andrew Lees at Queen Square, published what is probably the most important clinical paper on PSP in the half-century since Steele, Richardson and Olszewski. That work delineated and named PSP-Richardson syndrome (PSP-RS ) and PSP-parkinsonism (PSP-P). This wasn’t just a new way to slice a clinical spectrum sharing the same basic pathology; the two variants actually had statistical differences by cluster analysis. This suggests that they differ at the pathoanatomic level. They even differed in the ratio of 4R/3R tau. (It turns out that the predilection of PSP’s tangles for 4R tau is driven by RS.)

Since then, a cornucopia of low-frequency clinical variants meeting pathoanatomic criteria for PSP has been described. In approximate descending order of prevalence after RS and PSP-P are corticobasal syndrome, postural Instability, pure akinesia with gait freezing, frontotemporal dementia, ocular motor predominance, progressive non-fluent aphasia, semantic dementia, and a cerebellar variant.
The clinicopathologic studies are only starting to appear, but it’s likely that they will all turn out to emphasize different cells, nuclei and brain regions. We will also probably see some subtle molecular differences among them (presaged by the 4R/3R difference between RS and PSP-P).

That sounds like different diseases to me. Different diseases shouldn’t be combined in treatment trials, genetic analyses or descriptive studies. What a mess.

Or is it? Maybe we don’t need to find causes and cures for each PSP variant individually. As they’re all tau aggregation disorders, maybe they will all yield to the same prevention. Maybe the mechanism of prion-like spread, by now pretty much a textbook verity, will apply not only to all of the “pure tauopathies” (and it’s not yet clear that all of the PSP variants are in fact pure tauopathies) but to all of the protein-aggregation-based neurodegenerative disorders. If it does, then poisoning that process could be the grand unified answer to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and PSP in all its malign variety.