The complex interplay of post-transcriptional regulatory mechanisms mediated by RNA-binding proteins (RBP) at different steps of RNA metabolism is pivotal for the development of the nervous system and the maintenance of adult brain activities. In this review, we will focus on the highly conserved ELAV gene family encoding for neuronal-specific RBPs which are necessary for proper neuronal differentiation and important for synaptic plasticity process. In the evolution from Drosophila to man, ELAV proteins seem to have changed their biological functions in relation to their different subcellular localization. While in Drosophila, they are localized in the nuclear compartment of neuronal cells and regulate splicing and polyadenylation, in mammals, the neuronal ELAV proteins are mainly present in the cytoplasm where they participate in regulating mRNA target stability, translation and transport into neurites. However, recent data indicate that the mammalian ELAV RBPs also have nuclear activities, similarly to their fly counterpart, being them able to continuously shuttle between the cytoplasm and the nucleus. Here, we will review and comment on all the biological functions associated with neuronal ELAV proteins along evolution and will show that the post-transcriptional regulatory network mediated by these RBPs in the brain is highly complex and only at an initial stage of being fully understood. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled ‘RNA and splicing regulation in neurodegeneration’.