There are no effective therapies for many tumours of the nervous system. This is, in part, a consequence of their location within relatively inaccessible tissues. It is also likely, however, that the unique characteristics of the cells that give rise to these tumours create a set of conditions that facilitate tumour development. Here, we consider recent advances in molecular genetics, the development of mouse models and developmental neurobiology as they relate to tumours of neuroectodermal origin. It is likely that these advances will provide insight into underlying mechanisms and provide a rational framework for the development of effective interventions.