In recent years, methods to derive multiple differentiated neuronal types from embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in vitro have been reported. Three-dimensional (3D) culture methods not only support differentiation but also recapitulate spatial aspects of brain development. Such studies were pioneered by the late Yoshiki Sasai, and on p. 1211, his colleagues Atsushi Shiraishi and Keiko Muguruma adapt the original 3D culture conditions – which supported rostral neural fate – to derive thalamic neurons from mouse ESCs for the first time. They find that addition of insulin and FGF pathway inhibitors can specify caudal forebrain identity, and that subsequent treatment with BMP7 can promote thalamic fate. Within the neuroepithelial-sphere structure that forms in these cultures, there is significant spatial organisation: early progenitors are found by the apical cavity, while more mature cell types are located towards the outside, and the spheres display rostral-caudal regionalisation. The derived neurons can extend axons that – both in culture and in transplantation experiments in vivo – show projection patterns consistent with thalamic identity. Not only does this work allow the generation of thalamic neurons in vitro, but it also provides insights into the signalling mechanisms regulating thalamus development in vivo.