With the discovery two decades ago that the adult brain contains neural stem cells (NSCs) capable of producing new neurons, a great deal of research has been undertaken to manipulate these cells to repair the damaged nervous system. Much progress has been made in understanding what regulates adult neural stem cell specification, proliferation and differentiation but much remains to be determined. Lessons can be learned from understanding how embryonic neural stem cells produce the exquisitely complicated organ that is the adult mammalian nervous system. This review will highlight the role of transcriptional regulation of mammalian neural stem cells during embryonic development and compare these to the adult neural stem cell/neural precursor cell (NPC) niches of the subventricular zone (SVZ) of the lateral ventricle and the subgranular zone (SGZ) of the hippocampal dentate gyrus. Normal physiological NSC/NPC regulation will be explored, as well as their regulation and responses following neural injury and disease. Finally, transcriptional regulation of the endogenous NSC/NPCs will be compared and contrasted with embryonic stem/induced pluripotent stem (ES/iPS) cell-derived NSC/NPCs. Recapitulation of the embryonic sequence of transcriptional events in neural stem cell development into specific neuronal or glial lineages improves directed differentiation of ES/iPS cells and may be useful for activation and specification of endogenous adult neural stem cells for therapeutic purposes.