Neuroectoderm cells in the cortical ventricular zone generate many diverse cell types, maintain the ventricular zone during embryonic life and create another germinal layer, the subventricular zone, which persists into adulthood. In other vertebrate tissues, including skin, intestine, blood and neural crest, stem cells are important in maintaining a germinal population and generating differentiated progeny. By following the fates of single ventricular zone cells in culture, we show here that self-renewing, multipotential stem cells are present in the embryonic rat cerebral cortex. Forty per cent of these stem cells produced all three principal cell types of the central nervous system: neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. Stem cells constituted about 7% of cortical clones; in contrast, over 80% consisted of small numbers of neurons or glia. We suggest that multipotential stem cells may be the ancestors of other cortical progenitor cells that exhibit more limited proliferation and more restricted repertoires of progeny fates.