Human birth defects are a major public health burden: The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 of every 33 United States newborns presents with a birth defect, and worldwide the estimate approaches 6% of all births. Among the most common and debilitating of human birth defects are those affecting the formation of the neural tube, the precursor to the central nervous system. Neural tube defects (NTDs) arise from a complex combination of genetic and environmental interactions. Although substantial advances have been made in the prevention and treatment of these malformations, NTDs remain a substantial public health problem, and we are only now beginning to understand their etiology. Here, we review the process of neural tube development and how defects in this process lead to NTDs, both in humans and in the animal models that serve to inform our understanding of these processes. The insights we are gaining will help generate new intervention strategies to tackle the clinical challenges and to alleviate the personal and societal burdens that accompany these defects.