The body plan of the tadpole larva of ascidians, or sea-squirts, is widely presumed to be close to that of the hypothetical ancestor of all chordate animal groups, including vertebrates. This is nowhere more obvious than in the organization and development of the dorsal tubular nervous system. Several recent developments advocate this model neural system for studies on neurobiology and neurogenesis. These include advances in our understanding of development in ascidian embryos and of differentiation among the cellular progeny of its neural plate; the application of transgenic and mutant approaches to studies on ascidian larval neurones; and the prospect of advances in genomic analyses. In addition to providing ways to study a working chordate brain in miniature, all these offer insights into the ancestral condition of the developing vertebrate brain.