In situ hybridization histochemistry and immunocytochemistry were used to study the prenatal expression of luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) cells in the mouse. Cells expressing LHRH mRNA and peptide product were first detected on embryonic day 11.5 (E11.5) in the olfactory pit. On E12.5, the majority of LHRH cells were located on "tracks" extending from the olfactory pit to the base of the telencephalon. From E12.5 to E15.5, LHRH cells were detected in a rostral-to-caudal gradient in forebrain areas. Prior to E12.5, cells expressing LHRH mRNA were not detected in forebrain areas known to contain LHRH cells in postnatal animals. Quantitation of cells expressing LHRH mRNA showed that the number of labeled cells on E12.5 (approximately 800) equaled the number of LHRH cells in postnatal animals, but more than 90% of these cells were located in nasal regions. Between E12.5 and E15.5, the location of LHRH cells shifted. The number of LHRH cells in the forebrain increased, while the number of LHRH cells in nasal regions decreased over this same period. These findings establish that cells first found in the olfactory pit and thereafter in forebrain areas express the LHRH gene and correspond to the position of LHRH immunopositive cells found at these developmental times. To further examine the ontogeny of the LHRH system, immunocytochemistry in combination with [3H]thymidine autoradiography was used to determine when LHRH cells left the mitotic cycle. We show that LHRH neurons exhibit a discrete time of birth, suggesting that they arise as a single neuronal population between E10.0 and E11.0. Postnatal LHRH neurons were "birth-dated" shortly after differentiation of the olfactory placode and before LHRH mRNA was expressed in cells in the olfactory pit. Taken together, these studies support the hypothesis that all LHRH cells in the central nervous system arise from a discrete group of progenitor cells in the olfactory placode and that a subpopulation of these cells migrate into forebrain areas where they subsequently establish an adult-like distribution.