Previous studies have shown that estrogen increases the level of progestin receptors (PR) to a greater extent in female than in male rat hypothalamus. In order to determine if sex-specific regulation of the PR protein might be attributable to estrogenic effects on the PR message, in situ hybridization was used to assess sex differences in levels of estrogen-inducible PR mRNA in specific brain nuclei. Here, we report a sexually differentiated pattern of estrogen-regulated PR gene expression. In female hypothalamus, estrogen administered to gonadectomized rats induced a 3.6- and a 3.3-fold increase in PR mRNA in the ventrolateral aspect of the ventromedial nucleus and arcuate nucleus, respectively, but failed to alter the level of PR mRNA in the same neuronal groups of the male. Hormone treatment did not affect the levels of PR mRNA in the dorsomedial or medial amygdaloid nuclei of either sex. These results lead towards a molecular explanation of sex differences in female reproductive behavior by revealing an estrogen-dependent up-regulation of the message for PR, a transcription factor, in a region- and sex-specific fashion.