Gene targeting provides a means of directly assaying the function of specific genes during mouse nervous system development. Generation of targeted mutant mice has provided the first evidence of developmental roles for genes whose function was suggested based on their expression, but for which appropriate assay systems were lacking. In other cases, where gene function was known, targeted mutations have revealed in which cell population, and at what developmental stage, particular genes are first indispensable. The existing targeted mutants suggest that an early mechanism of pattern formation in mammals involves regional control of proliferation or survival of neural precursors, and that later general functions, such as the control of differentiation of precursors, may be performed by different genes in distinct neural lineages. As many genes display complex temporal and spatial patterns of expression, analysis of the full range of functions of such genes will require the generation of a series of alleles, including stage- and tissue-specific mutations.