The triggering of innate immune mechanisms is emerging as a crucial component of major neurodegenerative diseases. Microglia and other cell types in the brain can be activated in response to misfolded proteins or aberrantly localized nucleic acids. This diverts microglia from their physiological and beneficial functions, and leads to their sustained release of pro-inflammatory mediators. In this Review, we discuss how the activation of innate immune signalling pathways - in particular, the NOD-, LRR- and pyrin domain-containing 3 (NLRP3) inflammasome - by aberrant host proteins may be a common step in the development of diverse neurodegenerative disorders. During chronic activation of microglia, the sustained exposure of neurons to pro-inflammatory mediators can cause neuronal dysfunction and contribute to cell death. As chronic neuroinflammation is observed at relatively early stages of neurodegenerative disease, targeting the mechanisms that drive this process may be useful for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.