Polyclonal antibodies to N-CAM and L1 and monoclonal antibodies to epitopes of N-CAM (designated 12F11, 8A2, and 12F8) were used to investigate the spatial and temporal distribution of these neural cell adhesion molecules during the development of mouse cortex and olfactory bulb. The aim of the study was to correlate developmental events such as cell migration, dendritic and axonal outgrowth, and synaptogenesis with the appearance and disappearance of specific molecules involved in cell-cell interactions. Western transfer studies indicated that 12F8 antibody recognized polysialic acid found on embryonic N-CAM; 8A2 antibody primarily recognized the 140 kD component of N-CAM while the 12F11 antibody recognized the 180 and the 140 kD forms. The study demonstrates a high degree of cell surface molecular specialization of different compartments in developing neocortex and olfactory bulb. L1 is found on a variety of unmyelinated fiber tracts including thalamocortical fibers, olfactory nerve, and inner plexiform layer of the olfactory bulb. In contrast, N-CAM epitope recognized by 12F11 antibody is present on olfactory nerve fibers but appears later and is much weaker than L1 on thalamocortical fibers and is absent from the olfactory lobe inner plexiform layer. Dendritic regions are best labeled by 12F8 antibody; the epitope becomes faint in adult cortex but remains strongly expressed in olfactory bulb. This study reveals that widespread N-CAM expression in the central nervous system is constituted by a diversity of local expression of different molecular forms of N-CAM; their different anatomical distributions suggest they may each have unique roles.