When exposed to platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF), uncommitted neuroepithelial cells from the developing cortex of embryonic day 14 (E14) rats develop into neurons. Outward signs of the neuronal phenotype are not observed for 4 days following exposure to PDGF. However, only a brief (2-3 hr) period of PDGF receptor activation is required to initiate neuronal development. During the window of receptor activation, RNA synthesis is essential, but protein synthesis is not. These observations indicate that specification of neuronal fate is mediated by an immediate early gene response.