Immunocytochemical techniques were used to characterize the neuronal populations in the hippocampal subplate and marginal zone from embryonic day 13 (E13) to postnatal day 5 (P5). Sections were processed for the visualization of microtubule-associated protein 2 (MAP2) and other antigens such as neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, calcium-binding proteins and a synaptic antigen (Mab SMI81). At E13-E14, only the ventricular zone and the primitive plexiform layer were recognized. Some cells in the later stratum displayed MAP2-, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)- and calretinin immunoreactivities. From E15 onwards, the hippocampal and dentate plates became visible. Neurons in the plexiform layers were immunoreactive at E15-E16, whereas the hippocampal and dentate plates showed immunostaining two or three days later. Between E15 and E19 the following populations were distinguished in the plexiform layers: the subventricular zone displayed small neurons that reacted with MAP2 and GABA antibodies; the subplate (prospective stratum oriens) was poorly populated by MAP2- and GABA-positive cells; the inner marginal zone (future stratum radiatum) was heavily populated by multipolar GABAergic cells; the outer marginal zone (stratum lacunosum-moleculare) displayed horizontal neurons that showed glutamate- and calretinin immunoreactivities, their morphology being reminiscent of neocortical Cajal-Retzius cells. Thus, each plexiform layer was populated by a characteristic neuronal population whose distribution did not overlap. Similar segregated neuronal populations were also found in the developing dentate gyrus. At perinatal stages, small numbers of neurons in the plexiform layers began to express calbindin D-28K and neuropeptides. During early postnatal stages, neurons in the subplate and inner marginal zones were transformed into resident cells of the stratum oriens and radiatum, respectively. In contrast, calretinin-positive neurons in the stratum lacunosum-moleculare disappeared at postnatal stages. At E15-E19, SMI81-immunoreactive fibers were observed in the developing white matter, subplate and outer marginal zone, which suggests that these layers are sites of early synaptogenesis. At P0-P5, SMI81 immunoreactivity became homogeneously distributed within the hippocampal layers. The present results show that neurons in the hippocampal subplate and marginal zones have a more precocious morphological and neurochemical differentiation than the neurons residing in the principal cell layers. It is suggested that these early maturing neurons may have a role in the targeting of hippocampal afferents, as subplate cells do in the developing neocortex.