We performed mRNA expression profiling of mouse primary hippocampal neurones undergoing differentiation in vitro. We show that 2314 genes significantly changed expression during neuronal differentiation. The temporal resolution of our experiment (six time points) permits us to distinguish between gene expression patterns characteristic for the axonal and for the dendritic stages of neurite outgrowth. Cluster analysis reveals that, in the process of in vitro neuronal differentiation, a high level of expression of genes involved in the synthesis of DNA and proteins precedes the up regulation of genes involved in protein transport, energy generation and synaptic functions. We report in detail changes in gene expression for genes involved in the synaptic vesicle cycle. Data for other genes can be accessed at our website. We directly compare expression of 475 genes in the differentiating neurones and the developing mouse hippocampus. We demonstrate that the program of gene expression is accelerated in vitro as compared to the situation in vivo. When this factor is accounted for, the gene expression profiles in vitro and in vivo become very similar (median gene-wise correlation 0.787). Apparently once the cells have taken a neuronal fate, the further program of gene expression is largely independent of histological or anatomical context. Our results also demonstrate that a comparison across the two experimental platforms (cDNA microarrays and oligonucleotide chips) and across different biological paradigms is feasible.