The physiological role of prion protein (PrP) remains unknown. Mice devoid of PrP develop normally but are resistant to scrapie; introduction of a PrP transgene restores susceptibility to the disease. To identify the regions of PrP necessary for this activity, we prepared PrP knockout mice expressing PrPs with amino-proximal deletions. Surprisingly, PrP lacking residues 32-121 or 32-134, but not with shorter deletions, caused severe ataxia and neuronal death limited to the granular layer of the cerebellum as early as 1-3 months after birth. The defect was completely abolished by introducing one copy of a wild-type PrP gene. We speculate that these truncated PrPs may be nonfunctional and compete with some other molecule with a PrP-like function for a common ligand.