In nervous system development, the growth cones of advancing axons are thought to navigate to their targets by recognizing cell-surface and extracellular matrix molecules that act as specific guidance cues. To identify and map cues that guide the growth of a particular axonal system, the thalamocortical afferents, an assay was devised to examine short-term interactions of dissociated embryonic thalamic cells with living, approximately 150 microns slices of developing mouse forebrain. Thalamic cells rapidly (< 3 hours) and efficiently attached to and extended neurites on pre- and postnatal slices, but a broad zone throughout the neocortex was generally non-permissive for both thalamic cell attachment and the ingrowth of neurites. This zone coincided with the cortical plate at early stages (embryonic day 15), but later became restricted, in rostral-to-caudal fashion, to cortical laminae 2/3. Thus, at each stage, thalamic cells in vitro avoided just that area that thalamic axons confront, but generally do not enter, in vivo. In addition, neurites that extended on some layers were found to be significantly oriented in directions that coincide with the pathways that thalamic axons follow in vivo. These results imply that local adhesive cues and signals that affect process outgrowth are distributed among developing cortical laminae in a manner that could underlie much of the temporal and spatial patterning of thalamocortical innervation.