Thalamic degenerations or dementias are poorly understood conditions. The familial forms are (1) selective thalamic degenerations and (2) thalamic degenerations associated with multiple system atrophy. Selective thalamic degenerations share clinical and pathologic features with fatal familial insomnia, an autosomal dominant disease linked to a mutation at codon 178 of the prion protein (PrP) gene that causes the substitution of asparagine for aspartic acid (178mutation). We amplified the carboxyl terminal coding region of the PrP gene from subjects with selective thalamic dementia or thalamic dementia associated with multiple system atrophy. Three of the four kindreds with selective thalamic dementia and none of the three kindreds with thalamic dementia associated with multiple system atrophy had the PrP 178Asn mutation. Thus, analysis of the PrP gene may be useful in diagnosing the subtypes of thalamic dementia. Moreover, since selective thalamic dementia with the PrP 178 mutation and fatal familial insomnia share clinical and histopathologic features, we propose that they are the same disease.