Arxiu d'etiquetes: fatal familial insomnia

Prions: special proteins

Do you remember mad cow disease? Some years ago it caused media hype because this illness, which affected animals, affected people too. Then, it was discovered that prions were the cause. So, I will discuss what prions are and the diseases that they produce.


Prions are proteins, but with different characteristics. Proteins are molecules formed by amino acids, which are bound by peptide bonds. All proteins are composed by carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. They are localized in all cells of the body and they participate in all biological processes that are produced. While DNA carries genetic information of the cell, proteins execute the work led by this information.

Proteins are the most varied macromolecules. In each cell there are miles of different proteins, with an extended range of functions. Between them: to be structural components of cells and tissues, to act in the transport and storage of little molecules, to transmit information between cells and to proportionate a defence in front of an infection. However, the main function is to act as enzymes, which catalyse most of chemical reactions in biological systems.

Prions are proteins with pathogenic and infectious characteristics (Video 1). They are not virus nor alive organisms; they are proteins without nucleic acid, it means, without DNA. They are localized in the surface of the central nervous system, especially in neurons; although they are also located in other body tissues of adult animals. Significant levels have been detected in the heart and skeletal muscle, and to a lesser extent in other organs except the liver and pancreas.

Video 1. What are prions? (Source: YouTube)


There is a change in the configuration of the cellular prion protein PrPc (Figure 1) in the diseases caused by prions. This protein has a protector role for cells and helps them respond in front of lack oxygen. The consequence of prions on this protein is the alteration of its functionality, producing a protein PrPSc with altered configuration. However, both configurations have the same sequence of amino acids. The secret of the different behaviour is the wrong folding, it means, the wrong conformation.

prpc prpsc
Figure 1. Left: normal protein (PrPc). Right: protein with altered configuration (PrPSc)(Source: Searching for the Mind with Jon Lieff, M. D.)


Prion diseases are neurodegenerative processes produced by abnormal metabolism of a prion protein. These affect humans and animals and have a fatal clinical evolution, with the death as final.

There are various prion diseases, however, symptoms and clinical features are shared (Table 1). Some of these clinical features are dementia, ataxia (discoordination in the movement of body), insomnia, paraplegia and abnormal behaviors. The brain acquires a spongiform aspect, it means, an aspect like a sponge. This is due to accumulation of prion proteins in neurons, where amyloid plaques are formed.

Amyloid plaques are caused by accumulation of amyloid peptide, an essential protein for cellular function of the body. This accumulation in the brain can generate toxicity for nervous cells.

Until today there is any treatment to cure, improve or control symptoms and signs of these diseases.

Tabla 1. Prion diseases and its clinical features (Source: Rubio, T. & Verdecia, M. Enfermedades priónicas. MEDISAN 2009; 13(1))




< 60 years

1 month – 10 years

(average 1 year)




40 years (29-60) 3 month – 1 year
Fatal familial insomnia


No autonomy



45 years (35-55) 1 year


During 18th century, European farmers described a neurodegenerative disease that affected sheep and goats, called scrapie. The affected animals will compulsively scrape off their fleeces against rocks, trees, or fences. Furthermore, its brain looked like a sponge. So, this is the birth of the word spongiform.

However, until 20th century, in 1920, neurologists Creutzfeldt and Jakob described the first cases of spongiform encephalopathy in humans (Figure 2) and called the disease with their names.

Figure 2. Comparison of two brains: a brain affected by Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (left) and a healthy brain (right) (Source: Health & Medical Information)

In this disease, there is a loss of memory, lack coordination and damage of mental abilities. The balance problems are common and, sometimes, are manifested in the beginning. Many patients lose autonomy and are unable to take care of themselves in later stages of the disease.

Due to prion nature of the disease, any symptom is possible and it depends on the area of the brain that is being affected.


It is a rare disease, localized in New Guinea. The main risk factor to suffer the disease is the intake of brain human tissue, which can contain infectious particles.

It is the reason that it is associated with people who practice a form of cannibalism, in which the brains of dead people are eaten as part of a funeral ritual. Although this practice ended in 1960, cases of kuru have been reported years later.


It is a familial and inherited disease, which people affected suffer progressive insomnia. The human brain needs to sleep and rest, so permanent insomnia (there is not treatment with drugs) causes the death of patients.

Insomnia is due to a permanent and irreversible alteration of the sleep-wake cycle, which is characterized by the inability of the patient to develop REM and non-REM sleep.


  • Alberts, B. et al. (2016). Biología molecular de la célula. Barcelona: Omega.
  • Rubio, T. & Verdecia, M. Enfermedades priónicas. MEDISAN 2009; 13(1)
  • Wemheuer, W. M. et al. Similarities between Forms of Sheep Scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Are Encoded by Distinct Prion Types. Am J Pathol. 2009; 175(6): 2566–2573
  • Manual MSD
  • Early Clinical Trial
  • MedlinePlus
  • Main picture: Canal44