The mechanisms by which prions kill neurons and the role of the cellular prion protein in this process are enigmatic. Insight into these questions is provided by the neurodegenerative phenotypes of transgenic mice expressing prion protein (PrP) molecules with deletions of conserved amino acids in the central region. We report here that expression in transfected cells of the most toxic of these PrP deletion mutants (Delta105-125) induces large, spontaneous ionic currents that can be detected by patch-clamping techniques. These currents are produced by relatively non-selective, cation-permeable channels or pores in the cell membrane and can be silenced by overexpression of wild-type PrP, as well as by treatment with a sulfated glycosaminoglycan. Similar currents are induced by PrP molecules carrying several different point mutations in the central region that cause familial prion diseases in humans. The ionic currents described here are distinct from those produced in artificial lipid membranes by synthetic peptides derived from the PrP sequence because they are induced by membrane-anchored forms of PrP that are synthesized by cells and that are found in vivo. Our results indicate that the neurotoxicity of some mutant forms of PrP is attributable to enhanced ion channel activity and that wild-type PrP possesses a channel-silencing activity. Drugs that block PrP-associated channels or pores may therefore represent novel therapeutic agents for treatment of patients with prion diseases.