In spite of the high metabolic cost of cellular production, the brain contains only a fraction of the neurons generated during embryonic development. In the rodent cerebral cortex, a first wave of programmed cell death surges at embryonic stages and affects primarily progenitor cells. A second, larger wave unfolds during early postnatal development and ultimately determines the final number of cortical neurons. Programmed cell death in the developing cortex is particularly dependent on neuronal activity and unfolds in a cell-specific manner with precise temporal control. Pyramidal cells and interneurons adjust their numbers in sync, which is likely crucial for the establishment of balanced networks of excitatory and inhibitory neurons. In contrast, several other neuronal populations are almost completely eliminated through apoptosis during the first two weeks of postnatal development, highlighting the importance of programmed cell death in sculpting the mature cerebral cortex.