A cascade of simple mechanisms influences thalamic innervation of the neocortex. The cortex exerts a remote growth-promoting influence on thalamic axons when they start to grow out, becomes growth-permissive when the axons begin to invade, and later expresses a 'stop signal', causing termination in layer 4. However, any part of the thalamus will innervate any region of developing cortex in culture, and the precise topographic distribution of thalamic fibres in vivo is unlikely to depend exclusively on regional chemoaffinity. The 'handshake hypothesis' proposes that axons from the thalamus and from early-born cortical preplate cells meet and intermingle in the basal telencephalon, whereafter thalamic axons grow over the scaffold of preplate axons, and become 'captured' for a waiting period in the subplate layer below the corresponding part of the cortex. The bizarre pattern of development of thalamic innervation in the mutant reeler mouse provides strong evidence that thalamic axons are guided by preplate axons.