Hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathies (HSANs) are a clinically and genetically heterogeneous group of disorders of the PNS. Progressive degeneration, predominantly of sensory and autonomic neurons, is the main pathological feature in patients with HSAN, and causes prominent sensory loss and ulcerative mutilations in combination with variable autonomic and motor disturbances. Advances in molecular genetics have enabled identification of disease-causing mutations in 12 genes, and studies on the functional effects of these mutations are underway. Although some of the affected proteins--such as nerve growth factor and its receptor--have obvious nerve-specific roles, others are ubiquitously expressed proteins that are involved in sphingolipid metabolism, vesicular transport, transcription regulation and structural integrity. An important challenge in the future will be to understand the common molecular pathways that result in HSANs. Unraveling the mechanisms that underlie sensory and autonomic neurodegeneration could assist in identifying targets for future therapeutic strategies in patients with HSAN. This Review highlights key advances in the understanding of HSANs, including insights into the molecular mechanisms of disease, derived from genetic studies of patients with these disorders.