Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), also known as prion diseases, are a group of progressive conditions (encephalopathies) that affect the brain and nervous system of many animals, including humans. According to the most widespread hypothesis they are transmitted by prions, though some other data suggest an involvement of a Spiroplasma infection. Mental and physical abilities deteriorate and a myriad of tiny holes appear in the cortex causing it to appear like a sponge (hence spongiform) when brain tissue obtained at autopsy is examined under a microscope. The disorders cause impairment of brain function, including memory changes, personality changes and problems with movement that worsen over time. Prion diseases of humans include classic Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (nvCJD, a human disorder related to Bovine spongiform encephalopathy), Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome, fatal familial insomnia, kuru and the recently discovered Variably protease-sensitive prionopathy. These conditions form a spectrum of diseases with overlapping signs and symptoms.
Unlike other kinds of infectious disease that are spread by microbes, the infectious agent in TSEs is believed to be a type of protein called prion protein. Misshaped prion proteins carry the disease between individuals and cause deterioration of the brain. TSEs are unique diseases in that their aetiology may be genetic, sporadic, or infectious via ingestion of infected foodstuffs and via iatrogenic means (e.g., blood transfusion). Most TSEs are sporadic and occur in an animal with no prion protein mutation. Inherited TSE occurs in animals carrying a rare mutant prion allele, which expresses prion proteins that contort by themselves into the disease-causing conformation. Transmission occurs when healthy animals consume tainted tissues from others with the disease. In recent times, a type of TSE called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) spread in cattle in an epidemic fashion. This occurred because cattle were fed the processed remains of other cattle, a practice now banned in many countries.
Prions cannot be transmitted through the air or through touching or most other forms of casual contact. However, they may be transmitted through contact with infected tissue, body fluids, or contaminated medical instruments. Normal sterilization procedures such as boiling or irradiating materials fail to render prions non-infective.
Prion diseases or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders that affect both humans and animals. They are distinguished by long incubation periods, characteristic spongiform changes associated with neuronal loss, and a failure to induce inflammatory response.
The causative agents of TSEs are believed to be prions. The term "prions" refers to abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and are able to induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins called prion proteins that are found most abundantly in the brain. The functions of these normal prion proteins are still not completely understood. The abnormal folding of the prion proteins leads to brain damage and the characteristic signs and symptoms of the disease. Prion diseases are usually rapidly progressive and always fatal.