A wide range of infectious diseases can result in dementia, although the identity and nature of these diseases has changed over time. Two of the most significant current groups in terms of scientific complexity are HIV/AIDS and prion diseases. In these disorders, dementia occurs either as a consequence of targeting the brain and selectively damaging neurones, or by an indirect effect of neuroinflammation. In prion diseases, both direct neurotoxicity and neuroinflammation may act to result in neuronal damage. In HIV encephalitis, the progression of the dementia is slower, perhaps reflecting indirect damage that appears to result from neuroinflammation as a main cause of neuronal death. An ever-increasing range of model systems is now available to study the neuronal damage in infectious dementias, ranging from cell culture systems to animal models, some of which, particularly in the case of prion diseases, are very well characterised and amenable to controlled manipulation in terms of both host and agent parameters. As valuable as these experimental models are, they do not allow a direct approach to an understanding of dementia, the complexities of which cannot readily be studied in vitro or in animal models, but they do allow studies of interventions and therapeutic strategies. This review summarises the current state of knowledge regarding the major infective dementias.