Immunoglobulin-like antigens have been identified in neuronal subsets restricted to deeper layers of the developing mammalian cerebral cortex. The pattern is suggestive of selective uptake of immunoglobulin (Ig) from serum or synthesis of Ig or a molecule with Ig-like motifs. To distinguish between these alternatives, biochemical, immunocytochemical, and birthdating analyses were conducted. In neonatal rat cerebral cortex, immunoglobulin-like immunoreactivity was chiefly in subplate neurons, marginal zone neuropil, and processes spanning the cortical plate. Isolated staining was also observed within the ventricular zone. Although most staining in the cortical plate was absent several days after birth, subplate neuron staining persisted until the end of the second postnatal week. Quantitative immunoassays showed that the antigen concentration dropped from 130 ng/mg in cortical cytosol at birth to approximately 80 ng/mg by postnatal day 7 (P7) and remained low thereafter. Two Ig-immunoreactive polypeptides with mobilities similar to heavy and light chains of serum IgG, were identified by Western blotting. The larger band was purified, partially sequenced by Edman degradation, and found to match rat IgG heavy chain. Bromodeoxyuridine birthdating and anti-IgG double-labeling studies showed that most of the Ig-containing cells were early-generated neurons. Outside of the cortex, transient IgG staining was also detected in neurons of the retina and cerebellum. These studies suggest that subplate and other early-generated neurons selectively take up Ig from serum. The IgG may then either be degraded or lost from the central nervous system (CNS) during developmentally regulated cell death.