This review describes a group of diseases known as the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), which affect animals and humans. Examination of affected brain tissue suggests that these diseases are caused by the acquisition and deposition of prion protein (PrP). Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is the most important form of TSE in humans with at least four different varieties of the disease. Variant CJD (vCJD), a new form of the disease found in the UK, has several features that differ from the classical forms including early age of onset, longer duration of disease, psychiatric presentation (for example, depression) and extensive florid plaque development in the brain. About 10 per cent of patients with CJD exhibit visual symptoms at disease presentation and approximately 50 per cent during the course of the disease. The most commonly reported visual symptoms include diplopia, supranuclear palsies, complex visual disturbances, homonymous visual field defects, hallucinations and cortical blindness. Saccadic and smooth pursuit movements appear to be more rarely affected. The agent causing vCJD accumulates in lymphoid tissue such as the spleen and tonsils. The cornea has lymphoid tissue in the form of corneal dendritic cells that are important in the regulation of the immune response in the anterior segment of the eye. The presence of these cells in the cornea has raised the possibility of transmission between patients via optical devices that contact the eye. Although such transmission is theoretically possible it remains highly improbable.