A key event in the development of the mammalian cerebral cortex is the generation of neuronal populations during embryonic life. Previous studies have revealed many details of cortical neuron development including cell birthdates, migration patterns and lineage relationships. Programmed cell death is a potentially important mechanism that could alter the numbers and types of developing cortical cells during these early embryonic phases. While programmed cell death has been documented in other parts of the embryonic central nervous system, its operation has not been previously reported in the embryonic cortex because of the lack of cell death markers and the difficulty in following the entire population of cortical cells. Here, we have investigated the spatial and temporal distribution of dying cells in the embryonic cortex using an in situ endlabelling technique called 'ISEL+' that identifies fragmented nuclear DNA in dying cells with increased sensitivity. The period encompassing murine cerebral cortical neurogenesis was examined, from embryonic days 10 through 18. Dying cells were rare at embryonic day 10, but by embryonic day 14, 70% of cortical cells were found to be dying. This number declined to 50% by embryonic day 18, and few dying cells were observed in the adult cerebral cortex. Surprisingly, while dying cells were observed throughout the cerebral cortical wall, the majority were found within zones of cell proliferation rather than in regions of postmitotic neurons. These observations suggest that multiple mechanisms may regulate programmed cell death in the developing cortex. Moreover, embryonic cell death could be an important factor enabling the selection of appropriate cortical cells before they complete their differentiation in postnatal life.