Neurons of organisms with complex and flexible behavior, especially humans, must precisely control protein localization and activity to support higher brain functions such as learning and memory. In contrast, simpler organisms generally have simpler individual neurons, less complex nervous systems and display more limited behaviors. Strikingly, however, many key neuronal proteins are conserved between organisms that have very different degrees of behavioral complexity. Here we discuss a possible mechanism by which conserved neuronal proteins acquired new attributes that were crucial in the evolution of complexity of nervous system structure and function. Specifically, we hypothesize that vertebrate-specific post-translational palmitoylation sites and PDZ-binding protein-protein interaction motifs act as gain-of-function mutations, increasing the regulatory potential of conserved proteins without affecting their core functions. We further hypothesize that the additional regulation of neurotransmitter receptors and other membrane proteins made possible by these sites and motifs is critical for the function of complex nervous systems.