A key point in neural development is the commitment of progenitor cells to a specific neural fate. In all animals studied, proneural proteins - transcription factors of the basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) family - are central to this process. The function of these factors is strongly influenced by the spatial and temporal context in which they are expressed. It is important to understand the molecular mechanisms by which developmental context interacts with and modifies the intrinsic functions and properties of the proneural proteins. Recent insights have been obtained in Drosophila and vertebrates from analysis of how bHLH proteins interact with other transcription factors to regulate target genes.