As retinoic acid (RA) is known to regulate the expression of many neuronal proteins, it is likely to influence overall development and function of the brain; few particulars, however, are available about its role in neurobiological contexts due mainly to problems in RA detection. To ask whether the function of RA in the rostral brain is concentrated in particular neurobiological systems, we compared sites of RA synthesis and actions, as detected by RA signaling in reporter mice, for embryonic and adult ages. We found that most sites of RA actions in the forebrain do not colocalize with RA synthesis, consistent with a dominant RA supply by diffusion and the circulation. The changing RA patterns distinguish preferentially two complex functional schemes. (1) Within the visual system when the first optic axons grow toward their targets, RA signaling delineates the topographical adjustment of the retinal map, which is encoded in the coordinates of the visual world, to central visual maps, which are formed in the segmental brain coordinates. (2) The second scheme begins early in forebrain morphogenesis as a distinction of the dorsal telencephalon. With progressing development, and in the adult, the RA patterns then focus on widely distributed structures, most of which belong to the limbic system. These are sites in which emotional perception is combined with higher cognitive processes and in which normal function requires ongoing remodeling of synaptic connections, indicating that the developmental role of RA in promotion of neuronal differentiation programs continues in the adult brain for highly flexible neural circuits. J. Comp. Neurol. 470:297–316, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.