Heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoproteins (hnRNPs) are a family of conserved nuclear proteins that associate with nascent RNA polymerase II transcripts to yield hnRNP particles, playing key roles in mRNA metabolism, DNA-related functions and microRNA biogenesis. HnRNPs accompany transcripts from stages of transcriptional regulation through splicing and post-transcriptional regulation, and are believed to affect the majority of expressed genes in mammals. Most hnRNP mRNA transcripts undergo alternative splicing and post-translational modifications, to yield a remarkable diversity of proteins with numerous functional elements that work in concert in their multiple functions. Therefore, mis-regulation of hnRNPs leads to different maladies. Here, we focus on the role of one of the best-known members of this protein family, hnRNP A1 in RNA metabolism, and address recent works that note its multileveled involvement in several neurodegenerative disorders. Initially discovered as a DNA binding protein, hnRNP A1 includes two RNA recognition motifs, and post-translational modifications of these and other regions in this multifunctional protein alter both its nuclear pore shuttling properties and its RNA interactions and affect transcription, mRNA splicing and microRNA biogenesis. HnRNP A1 plays several key roles in neuronal functioning and its depletion, either due to debilitated cholinergic neurotransmission or under autoimmune reactions causes drastic changes in RNA metabolism. Consequently, hnRNP A1 decline contributes to the severity of symptoms in several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease (AD), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), fronto-temporal lobar degeneration (FTLD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), hereditary spastic paraparesis (HSP) and HTLV-I associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP). At the translational level, these properties of hnRNP A1 led to massive research efforts aimed at developing RNA-targeted therapeutic tools such as splicing-modulating oligonucleotides with promising pharmaceutical potential. HnRNP A1 thus presents an intriguing example for the complexity and importance of heteronuclear ribonucleoproteins in health and disease. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled ‘RNA and splicing regulation in neurodegeneration’.