Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy
The term groups together different diseases, including "mad cow disease" and "sheep scrapie" together with "Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease" in human beings. These diseases have a relatively long incubation period (between several years and several decades), and cause specific damage to the spinal cord and brain and are fatal.
The TSE have a species barrier (they have difficulty passing between species) and they are therefore transmitted more easily within the same species.
The diseases are due to deformation of a protein normally present in the body, P protein (PrP or "prion protein"). This can be either induced accidentally or may occur spontaneously.