Transmission of prion diseases between mammalian species is limited by a so-called 'species' or 'transmission' barrier. Recognition of prion transmission usually relies on the appearance of clinical symptoms in inoculated animals and the interval between inoculation and appearance of clinical disease is designated incubation period. At some point during this clinically silent period, neuropathological and biochemical changes as well as accumulation of prions in the brain can be detected and this stage can be called preclinical prion disease. Recently, several lines of evidence have suggested that subclinical forms of prion disease exist, in which high levels of infectivity and PrP(Sc) are found in animals that do not develop clinically apparent disease during a normal life-span. Such asymptomatic prion 'carrier' states challenge our current understanding of pathogenesis as well as of the molecular basis of barriers to transmission. Subclinical as well as preclinical/clinical prion disease may be relevant when analysing the risk to public health of potential sources of prion exposure.