Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder of the central nervous system. AD is the fourth leading cause of death in elderly persons 65 years or older in Western industrialized societies. The etiology of AD is unknown, but clinical, pathological, epidemiological, and molecular investigations suggest it is etiologically heterogeneous. Mutations in the amyloid protein are rare and segregate with the disease in a few early-onset familial AD (FAD) families. Similarities between AD and the unconventional viral (UCV) diseases, and between the amyloid and prion proteins, implicate the human prion protein gene (PRNP) as another candidate gene. Single strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis was used to screen for mutations at this locus in 82 AD patients from 54 families (30 FAD), vs. 39 age-matched controls. A 24-bp deletion around codon 68 that codes for one of five Gly-Pro rich octarepeats was identified in two affected sibs and one offspring of one late-onset FAD family. Two other affected sibs, three unaffected sibs, and three offspring from this family, in addition to one sporadic AD patient and three age-matched controls, were heterozygous for another octarepeat deletion located around codon 82. Two of the four affected sibs had features of PD, including one who was autopsy-verified AD and PD. Although these deletions were found infrequently in other AD patients and controls, they appear to be a rare polymorphism that is segregating in this FAD family. It does not appear that mutations at the PRNP locus are frequently associated with AD in this population.