Abstract Background Arthropod and vertebrate appendages appear to have evolved via parallel co-option of a plesiomorphic gene regulatory network. Our previous work implies that annelids evolved unrelated appendage-forming mechanisms; we therefore found no support for homology of parapodia and arthropodia at the level of the whole appendage. We expand on that study here by asking whether expression of the LIM homeobox (Lhx) genes apterous and lim1 in the annelid Neanthes arenaceodentata supports homology of the dorsal branches as well as the proximodistal axes of parapodia and arthropodia. In addition, we explore whether the neural expression of apterous and lim1 in Neanthes supports the putative ancestral function of the Lhx gene family in regulating the differentiation and maintenance of neuronal subtypes. Results Both genes exhibit continuous expression in specific portions of the developing central nervous system, from hatching to at least the 13-chaetiger stage. For example, nerve cord expression occurs in segmentally iterated patterns consisting of diffuse sets of many lim1-positive cells and comparatively fewer, clustered pairs of apterous-positive cells. Additionally, continuous apterous expression is observed in presumed neurosecretory ganglia of the posterior brain, while lim1 is continuously expressed in stomatogastric ganglia of the anterior brain. apterous is also expressed in the jaw sacs, dorsal parapodial muscles, and a presumed pair of cephalic sensory organs, whereas lim1 is expressed in multiple pharyngeal ganglia, the segmental peripheral nervous system, neuropodial chaetal sac muscles, and parapodial ligules. Conclusions The early and persistent nervous system expression of apterous and lim1 in Neanthes juveniles supports conservation of Lhx function in bilaterian neural differentiation and maintenance. Our results also suggest that diversification of parapodial muscle precursors involves a complementary LIM code similar to those generating distinct neuronal identities in fly and mouse nerve cords. Expression of apterous and lim1 in discrete components of developing parapodia is intriguing but does not map to comparable expression of these genes in developing arthropod appendages. Thus, annelid and arthropod appendage development apparently evolved, in part, via distinct co-option of the neuronal regulatory architecture. These divergent patterns of apterous and lim1 activity seemingly reflect de novo origins of parapodia and arthropodia, although we discuss alternative hypotheses.