Where the study of change in the nervous system over eons is immensely captivating, studying the change in a single brain during individual development is no less engaging. In many ways the ontogeny (development) of the nervous system in an individual mimics the evolutionary advancement of this structure observed across many animal species. During development, the nervous tissue emerges from the ectoderm (one of the three layers of the mammalian embryo) through the process of neural induction. This process causes the formation of the neural tube, which extends in a rostrocaudal (head-to-tail) plane. The tube, which is hollow, seams itself in the rostrocaudal direction. In some disease conditions, the neural tube does not close caudally and results in an abnormality called spina bifida. In this pathological condition, the lumbar and sacral segments of the spinal cord are disrupted.
As gestation progresses, the neural tube balloons up (cephalization) at the rostral end, and forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain, and the spinal cord can be visually delineated (day 40). About 50 days into gestation, six cephalic areas can be anatomically discerned (also see below for a more detailed description of these areas).
The progenitor cells (neuroblasts) that form the lining (neuroepithelium) of the neural tube generate all the neurons and glial cells of the central nervous system. During early stages of this development, neuroblasts rapidly divide and specialize into many varieties of neurons and glial cells, but this proliferation of cells is not uniform along the neural tube—that is why we see the forebrain and hindbrain expand into larger cephalic tissues than the midbrain. The neuroepithelium also generates a group of specialized cells that migrate outside the neural tube to form the neural crest. This structure gives rise to sensory and autonomic neurons in the peripheral nervous system.