The use of an exogenously administered thymidine analog, 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdU), for studies of the proliferation, migration and time of origin of cells in the cerebral cortex was investigated and compared with [3H]thymidine [( 3H]dT) autoradiography. Pregnant rats or mice were injected with BrdU and/or [3H]dT and processed by standard immunohistochemical techniques using a primary antibody directed against BrdU in single-stranded DNA, autoradiographic methods, or both. In animals that survived only 1 h after the injection, BrdU-positive cells were distributed in the proliferative zones throughout the central nervous system (CNS). In animals killed 1-3 days after the BrdU injection, intensely immunoreactive cells were in the superficial cortical plate and less intensely labeled cells were scattered throughout the deep cortical plate, the intermediate zone, and the germinal zones. In adult animals, 60 days or more after an injection of BrdU on GD 19, BrdU-positive cells were located in layer II/III of neocortex, the hippocampal pyramidal layer, and the granule layer of the dentate gyrus. In the double-labeling studies, the distribution of BrdU-immunoreactive cells was identical to that of autoradiographically labeled cells, and all autoradiographically labeled neurons were BrdU positive. Thus, BrdU immunohistochemistry is suitable for developmental studies of the CNS; moreover, it provides several advantages over [3H]dT autoradiography.