Abstract The original concept of the critical period of thyroid hormone (TH) action on brain development was proposed to identify the postnatal period during which TH supplement must be provided to a child with congenital hypothyroidism to prevent mental retardation. As neuropsychological tools have become more sensitive, it has become apparent that even mild TH insufficiency in humans can produce measurable deficits in very specific neuropsychological functions, and that the specific consequences of TH deficiency depends on the precise developmental timing of the deficiency. Models of maternal hypothyroidism, hypothyroxinaemia and congenital hyperthyroidism have provided these insights. If the TH deficiency occurs early in pregnancy, the offspring display problems in visual attention, visual processing (i.e. acuity and strabismus) and gross motor skills. If it occurs later in pregnancy, children are at additional risk of subnormal visual (i.e. contrast sensitivity) and visuospatial skills, as well as slower response speeds and fine motor deficits. Finally, if TH insufficiency occurs after birth, language and memory skills are most predominantly affected. Although the experimental literature lags behind clinical studies in providing a mechanistic explanation for each of these observations, recent studies confirm that the specific action of TH on brain development depends upon developmental timing, and studies informing us about molecular mechanisms of TH action are generating hypotheses concerning possible mechanisms to account for these pleiotropic actions.