Nosologically, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE or prion diseases) should be grouped with other neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, which are all caused by toxic gain of function of an aberrant form of a constitutively expressed protein. Failure to clear these proteins from the brain induces neuronal dysfunction. Transmissibility is the property that separates TSE from other neurodegenerative diseases, and this property seems to reside within the structure of the abnormal protein. The human phenotypic range of these encephalopathies includes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and its variant form, kuru, Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome, and fatal familial insomnia. Notwithstanding the generally low incidence of TSE and their limited infectiousness, major epidemics such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and kuru arise in situations where intraspecies recycling of the abnormal protein is sustained. Moreover, evidence of chronic subclinical infection in animals offers insights into pathogenesis and prompts re-evaluation of the notion of species barriers and present infection control measures. Since case-to-case transmission is the only known mechanism underlying epidemics of TSE, potential reservoirs of infectivity in the tails of epidemics need continued vigilance.