Malignant tumours intrinsic to the central nervous system (CNS) are among the most difficult of neoplasms to treat effectively. The major biological features of these tumours that preclude successful therapy include their cellular heterogeneity, which renders them highly resistant to both chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the propensity of the component tumour cells to invade, diffusely, the contiguous nervous tissues. The tumours are classified according to perceived cell of origin, gliomas being the most common generic group. In the 1970s transplacental administration of the potent neurocarcinogen, N-ethyl-N-nitrosourea (ENU), enabled investigation of the sequential development of brain and spinal neoplasms by electron microscopy and immunohistochemistry. The significance of the primitive cells of the subependymal plate in cellular origin and evolution of a variety of glial tumours was thereby established. Since then, the development of new cell culture methods, including the in vitro growth of neurospheres and multicellular tumour spheroids, and new antigenic markers of stem cells and glial/neuronal cell precursor cells, including nestin, Mushashi-1 and CD133, have led to a reappraisal of the histological classification and origins of CNS tumours. Moreover, neural stem cells may also provide new vectors in exciting novel therapeutic strategies for these tumours. In addition to the gliomas, stem cells may have been identified in paediatric tumours including cerebellar medulloblastoma, thought to be of external granule cell neuronal derivation. Interestingly, while the stem cell marker CD133 is expressed in these primitive neuroectodermal tumours (PNETs), the chondroitin sulphate proteoglycan neuronal/glial 2 (NG2), which appears to denote increased proliferative, but reduced migratory activity in adult gliomas, is rarely expressed. This is in contrast to the situation in the histologically similar supratentorial PNETs. A possible functional ‘switch’ between proliferation and migration in developing neural tumour cells may exist between NG2 and ganglioside GD3. The divergent pathways of differentiation of CNS tumours and the possibility of stem cell origin, for some, if not all, such neoplasms remain a matter for debate and continued research, but the presence of self-renewing neural stem cells in the CNS of both children and adults strongly suggests a role for these cells in tumour initiation and resistance to current therapeutic strategies.