The mutation of N-CAM in mice produces a phenotype dominated by an undersized olfactory bulb and accumulation of precursors in the subependymal layer. We demonstrate here that this defect can be duplicated by injection of an enzyme that specifically destroys the polysialic acid (PSA) moiety associated with N-CAM. Studies of BrdU-labeled and pyknotic cells suggest that this defect reflects a decrease in the rostral migration of olfactory precursors and not a change in the proliferation or rate of death of these cells. In addition to their ectopic location, these cells had fewer growth cone-like processes oriented along the migration route. In contrast to tangential movement, radial migration of granule cells in the olfactory bulb was not affected by loss of PSA. These results support the proposed role for PSA in cell translocation, discriminate between different mechanisms of cell migration, and provide insight as to the nature of the N-CAM mutant phenotype.