Abstract Background Promyelocytic leukemia zinc finger (Plzf), a transcriptional regulator involved in a lot of important biological processes during development, has been implied to maintain neural stem cells and inhibit their differentiation into neurons. However, the effects of Plzf on brain structures and functions are still not clarified. Results We showed that Plzf expression was detected as early as embryonic day (E) 9.5 in Pax6+ cells in the mouse brain, and was completely disappeared in telencephalon before the initiation of cortical neurogenesis. Loss of Plzf resulted in a smaller cerebral cortex with a decrease in the number of Tbr1+ deep layer neurons due to a decrease of mitotic cell number in the ventricular zone of forebrain at early developmental stage. Microarray, qRT-PCR, and flow cytometry analysis identified dysregulation of Mash1 proneural gene expression. We also observed an impairment of recognition memory in Plzf-deficient mice. Conclusions Plzf is expressed at early stages of brain development and involved in the formation of deep layer cortical neurons. Loss of Plzf results in dysregulation of Mash1, microcephaly with reduced numbers of early-born neurons, and impairment of recognition memory.