Morphological features of the subplate, the thalamic reticular complex and the ganglionic eminence, which represent three major transient structures of the human fetal forebrain, are summarized with special reference to their functional roles. The subplate harboring various neuronal types is an outstandingly wide zone subjacent to the cortical plate in the human fetal brain. Within the subplate various cortical afferents establish synaptic contacts for a prolonged period before entering the cortical plate. Therefore, the subplate is regarded as a "waiting compartment" which is required for the formation of mature cortical connections. Next to the thalamic reticular nucleus, within the fibers of internal capsule, the perireticular nucleus is located which has been established as a distinct entity during development. Its various neuronal types express a number of different neuroactive substances. Perinatally, the perireticular nucleus is drastically reduced in size. It is involved in the guidance of corticofugal and thalamocortical fibers. The ganglionic eminence is a conspicuous proliferative area that persists throughout nearly the entire fetal period. In the human fetal brain it extends medially upon the dorsal thalamic nuclei which receive precursor cells from the ganglionic eminence. Postmitotic cells in the marginal zone of the ganglionic eminence serve as an intermediate target for growing axons. On the whole, all three structures establish transient neural circuitries that may be essential for the formation of adult projections. The characteristics of the three transient structures are particularly relevant for developmental neuropathology as these structures may be damaged in disorders that preferentially occur in preterm infants.