The prion protein (PrPC) is essential for susceptibility to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. A specific conformer of this protein (PrPSc) is, according to the 'protein only' hypothesis, the principal or only component of the infectious agent, designated prion. Transmission of prions between species is often inefficient, resulting in low attack rates and/or prolonged incubation times and is ascribed to a 'species barrier' caused by differences in the amino acid sequence of PrP between recipient and donor. In this report, we demonstrate that these differences in amino acid sequence result in presentation of distinct peptides on major histocompatibility complex class II molecules. These peptides result in activation of specific CD4+ T cells which leads to the induction of an effective immune response against foreign PrP as demonstrated by antibody production. Therefore, CD4+ T cells represent a crucial component of the immune system to distinguish between foreign and self PrP.