The importance of programmed cell death (PCD) during vertebrate development has been well established. During the development of the nervous system in particular, neurotrophic cell death in innervating neurons matches the number of neurons to the size of their target field. However, PCD also occurs during earlier stages of neural development, within populations of proliferating neural precursors and newly postmitotic neuroblasts, all of which are not yet fully differentiated. This review addresses early neural PCD, which is distinct from neurotrophic death in differentiated neurons. Although early neural PCD is observed in a range of organisms, from Caenorhabditis elegans to mouse, the role and the regulation of early neural PCD are not well understood. The regulation of early neural PCD can be inferred from the function of factors such as bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs), Wnts, fibroblast growth factors (FGFs), and Sonic Hedgehog (Shh), which regulate both early neural development and PCD occurring in other developmental processes. Cell number control, removal of damaged or misspecified cells (spatially or temporally), and selection are the proposed roles early neural PCDs play during neural development. Data from developmental PCD in C. elegans and Drosophila provide insights into the possible signaling pathways integrating PCD with other processes during early neural development and the roles they might play.