Neurofibrillary tangles, composed of hyperphosphorylated tau fibrils, are a pathological hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease; the neurofibrillary tangle load correlates strongly with clinical progression of the disease. A growing body of evidence indicates that tau oligomer formation precedes the appearance of neurofibrillary tangles and contributes to neuronal loss. Here we show that tau oligomer formation can be inhibited by compounds whose chemical backbone includes 1,2-dihydroxybenzene. Specifically, we demonstrate that 1,2-dihydroxybenzene-containing compounds bind to and cap cysteine residues of tau and prevent its aggregation by hindering interactions between tau molecules. Further, we show that orally administered DL-isoproterenol, an adrenergic receptor agonist whose skeleton includes 1,2-dihydroxybenzene and which penetrates the brain, reduces the levels of detergent-insoluble tau, neuronal loss and reverses neurofibrillary tangle-associated brain dysfunction. Thus, compounds that target the cysteine residues of tau may prove useful in halting the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other tauopathies.