During cortical development, neurons generated at the same time in the ventricular zone migrate out into the cortical plate and form a cortical layer (Berry and Eayrs, 1963, Nature 197:984-985; Berry and Rogers, 1965, J. Anat. 99:691-709). We have been studying both the formation and maintenance of cortical layers in slice cultures from rat cortex. The bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) method was used to label cortical neurons on their birthday in vivo. When slice cultures were prepared from animals at different embryonic and postnatal ages, all cortical layers that have already been established in vivo remained preserved for several weeks in vitro. In slice cultures prepared during migration in the cortex, cells continued to migrate towards the pial side of the cortical slice, however, migration ceased after about 1 week in culture. Thus, cortical cells reached their final laminar position only in slice cultures from postnatal animals, whereas in embryonic slice, migrating cells became scattered throughout the cortex. Previous studies demonstrated that radial glia fibers are the major substrate for migrating neurons (Rakic, 1972, J. Comp. Neurol. 145:61-84; Hatten and Mason, 1990, Experientia 46:907-916). Using antibodies directed against the intermediate filament Vimentin, radial glial cells were detected in all slice cultures where cell migration did occur. Comparable to the glia development in vivo, radial glial fibers disappeared and astrocytes containing the glia fibrillary-associated protein (GFAP) differentiated in slice cultures from postnatal cortex, after the neurons have completed their migration. In contrast, radial glial cells were detected over the whole culture period, and very few astrocytes differentiated in embryonic slices, where cortical neurons failed to finish their migration. The results of this study indicate that the local environment is sufficient to sustain the layered organization of the cortex and support the migration of cortical neurons. In addition, our results reveal a close relationship between cell migration and the developmental status of glial cells.