Understanding the cellular, molecular and genetic mechanisms involved in building the brain remains one of the most challenging problems of neurobiology. In this article, we review recent work on the developmental mechanisms that generate the embryonic brain in insects. We compare some of the early developmental events that occur in the insect brain with those that operate during brain development in vertebrates and find that numerous parallels are present at both the cellular and the molecular levels. Thus, the roles of glial cells in prefiguring axon pathways, the function of pioneer neurons in establishing axon pathways, and the formation of a primary axon scaffolding are features of embryonic brain development in both insects and vertebrates. Moreover, at the molecular genetic level homologous regulatory genes control morphogenesis, regionalization and patterning during embryonic brain development in both insects and vertebrates. This indicates that there might be universal mechanisms for brain development, and that knowledge gained from Drosophila and other insects is relevant to our understanding of brain development in other more complex organisms, including man.