It has been proposed that cell-cell recognition occurs by means of local cell surface modulation of a small number of proteins rather than by expression of large numbers of different cell surface markers. Several different cell adhesion molecules (CAM's) have now been found in a number of vertebrate species in different tissues such as liver and striated muscle and even in a single complex structure such as the brain, where different molecules specific for neurons and glia have been identified. The neuron-specific molecule is involved in early embryonic events but also mediates neurite fasciculation, neuromuscular interaction, and orderly layering of neural tissue. It undergoes local surface modulation with loss of sialic acid during development. A failure of this process is closely correlated with connectional disorders in the staggerer mutant of the mouse. The accumulated data on this and other CAM's favor modulation theories rather than strict chemoaffinity theories of cell-cell recognition.