The genetic basis is now known for several disorders of neuronal migration in the developing cerebral cortex. Identification of the cellular processes mediated by the implicated genes is revealing crucial stages of neuronal migration and has the potential to reveal common cellular causes of neuronal migration disorders. We hypothesize that a newly recognized morphological stage of neuronal migration, the multipolar stage, is vulnerable and is disrupted in several disorders of neocortical development. The multipolar stage occurs as bipolar progenitor cells become radially migrating neurons. Several studies using in utero electroporation and RNAi have revealed that transition out of the multipolar stage depends on the function of filamin A, LIS1 and DCX. Mutations in the genes encoding these proteins in humans cause distinct neuronal migration disorders, including periventricular nodular heterotopia, subcortical band heterotopia and lissencephaly. The multipolar stage therefore seems to be a critical point of migration control and a vulnerable target for disruption of neocortical development. This review is part of the INMED/TINS special issue "Nature and nurture in brain development and neurological disorders", based on presentations at the annual INMED/TINS symposium (http://inmednet.com/).