Neuronal autophagy, like apoptosis, is one of the mechanisms of programmed cell death. In this review, we summarize current information about autophagy in naturally occurring and experimentally induced scrapie, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome against the broad background of neural degenerations in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Typically a sequence of events is observed: from a part of the neuronal cytoplasm sequestrated by concentric arrays of double membranes (phagophores); through the enclosure of the cytoplasm and membrane proliferation; to a final transformation of the large area of the cytoplasm into a collection of autophagic vacuoles of different sizes. These autophagic vacuoles form not only in neuronal perikarya but also in neurites and synapses. On the basis of ultrastructural studies, we suggest that autophagy may play a major role in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and may even participate in the formation of spongiform change.