Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) are a group of progressive, invariably fatal, conditions that are associated with prions and affect the brain (encephalopathies) and nervous system of many animals, including humans, cattle, and sheep. 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 many tiny holes appear in the cortex causing it to appear like a sponge 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 chronically.
TSEs of humans include Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease—which has four main forms, the sporadic (sCJD), the hereditary/familial (fCJD), the iatrogenic (iCJD) and the variant form (vCJD)—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. TSEs in non-human mammals include scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—popularly known as "mad cow's disease"—in cattle and chronic wasting disease (CWD)—also known as 'zombie deer disease'—in deer and elk. The variant form of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease is caused by exposure to bovine spongiform encephalopathy prions.
Unlike other kinds of infectious disease, which are spread by agents with a DNA or RNA genome (such as virus or bacteria), the infectious agent in TSEs is believed to be a prion, thus being composed solely of protein material. Misshapen 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 the 1980s and 1990s, bovine spongiform encephalopathy 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. In turn, consumption (by humans) of bovine-derived foodstuff which contained prion-contaminated tissues resulted in an outbreak of the variant form of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in the 1990s and 2000s.
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.