Lampreys belong to the most primitive extant group of vertebrates, the Agnathans, which is considered the sister group of jawed vertebrates. Accordingly, characterization of neuronal groups and their development appears useful for understanding early evolution of the nervous system in vertebrates. Here, the development of the serotonergic system in the central nervous system of the sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus, was investigated by immunohistochemical analysis of specimens ranging from embryos to adults. The different serotonin-immunoreactive (5-HT-ir) neuronal populations that are found in adults were observed between the embryonic and metamorphic stages. The earliest serotonergic neurons were observed in the basal plate of the isthmus region of late embryos. In prolarvae, progressive appearance of new serotonergic cell groups was observed: firstly in the spinal cord, then in the pineal organ, tuberal region, zona limitans intrathalamica, rostral isthmus, and the caudal part of the rhombencephalon. In early larvae a new group of serotonergic cells was observed in the mammillary region, whereas in the pretectal region and the parapineal organ the first serotonergic cells were seen in the middle and late larval stages, respectively. The first serotonergic fibres appeared in early prolarvae, with fibres that ascend and descend from the isthmic cell group, and the number of immunoreactive fibres increased progressively until the adult stage. The results reveal strong resemblances between lampreys and other vertebrates in the spatio-temporal pattern of development of brainstem populations. This study also reveals a shared pattern of early ascending and descending serotonergic pathways in lampreys and jawed vertebrates. © 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.