Programmed cell death is an orchestrated form of cell death in which cells are actively involved in their own demise. During neural development in mammals, many progenitor cells, immature cells or differentiated cells undergo the most clearly characterized type of cell death, apoptosis. Several pathways of apoptosis have been linked to neural development, but according to the numerous and striking phenotypes observed when apoptotic genes are inactivated, the mitochondrial death-route is the most important pathway in this context. Here, we discuss the relative importance of pro-growth/pro-death factors in the control of neural tissue development. We also discuss the impact of studying programmed cell death in development in order to better understand the basis of several human diseases and embryonic defects of the nervous system.