Studies of the distribution and production of ECM components during development of the cerebral cortex have suggested several hypotheses regarding their functional role. In the earliest stages of cortical development, fibronectin is produced by cells in the ventricular zone throughout the telencephalic vesicle, where it may serve as a part of the local environment that supports cell division and determines cell fate. Fibronectin is also distributed along radial glial processes. It is closely associated with preplate neurons, as are chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans and several other ECM components. This association continues as preplate cells are divided into the marginal zone and subplate by the invasion of cortical plate neurons, suggesting that ECM, preplate cells and radial glia serve as a scaffold for cortical plate formation. Fibronectin is also produced by migrating neurons, but only by those moving into specific cortical domains, suggesting that it may help neurons destined for specific targets discriminate between adjacent glial guides. A recently defined ECM-like protein, reelin, is absent or abnormal in the reeler mutant mouse in which cortical neurons are severely malpositioned. Reelin is produced by marginal zone cells and is therefore appropriately located to serve as a stop signal for migrating neurons. Axons leaving the cortical plate cross the CSPG-rich subplate, then turn to follow a path containing much less CSPG. In contrast, the cortical trajectory of thalamic axons is centered on the subplate, indicating that CSPGs in the subplate are not a barrier to axon outgrowth and may instead be serving as guidance cues that distinguish afferent from efferent pathways. Neurocan, a CNS-specific CSPG with many molecular features that indicate roles in cell-cell and cell-substrate interactions, is the only CSPG defined to date whose distribution supports a role in distinguishing afferent from efferent pathways.