Prions: protein aggregation and infectious diseases

Physiol Rev. 2009 Oct;89(4):1105-52. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00006.2009.


Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are inevitably lethal neurodegenerative diseases that affect humans and a large variety of animals. The infectious agent responsible for TSEs is the prion, an abnormally folded and aggregated protein that propagates itself by imposing its conformation onto the cellular prion protein (PrPC) of the host. PrPC is necessary for prion replication and for prion-induced neurodegeneration, yet the proximal causes of neuronal injury and death are still poorly understood. Prion toxicity may arise from the interference with the normal function of PrPC, and therefore, understanding the physiological role of PrPC may help to clarify the mechanism underlying prion diseases. Here we discuss the evolution of the prion concept and how prion-like mechanisms may apply to other protein aggregation diseases. We describe the clinical and the pathological features of the prion diseases in human and animals, the events occurring during neuroinvasion, and the possible scenarios underlying brain damage. Finally, we discuss potential antiprion therapies and current developments in the realm of prion diagnostics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / pathology
  • Humans
  • Peripheral Nervous System / pathology
  • Prion Diseases / diagnosis
  • Prion Diseases / drug therapy
  • Prion Diseases / genetics*
  • Prion Diseases / immunology
  • Prion Diseases / transmission
  • Prions / genetics
  • Prions / physiology*


  • Prions