This review considers evidence which reveals considerable complexity and sex differences in the response of the nigrostriatal dopaminergic (NSDA) system to hormonal influences. This pathway degenerates in Parkinson's disease (PD) and sex hormones contribute to sex differences in PD, where men fare worse than women. Here we discuss evidence from animal studies which allows us to hypothesize that, contrary to expectations, the acclaimed neuroprotective property of physiological concentrations of estradiol arises not by promoting NSDA neuron survival, but by targeting powerful adaptive responses in the surviving neurons, which restore striatal DA functionality until over 60% of neurons are lost. Estrogen generated locally in the NSDA region appears to promote these adaptive mechanisms in females and males to preserve striatal DA levels in the partially injured NSDA pathway. However, responses to systemic steroids differ between the sexes. In females there is general agreement that gonadal steroids and exogenous estradiol promote striatal adaptation in the partially injured NSDA pathway to protect against striatal DA loss. In contrast, the balance of evidence suggests that in males gonadal factors and exogenous estradiol have negligible or even harmful effects. Sex differences in the organization of NSDA-related circuitry may well account for these differences. Compensatory mechanisms and sexually dimorphic hard-wiring are therefore likely to represent important biological substrates for sex dimorphisms. As these processes may be targeted differentially by systemic steroids in males and females, further understanding of the underlying processes would provide valuable insights into the potential for hormone-based therapies in PD, which would need to be sex-specific. Alternatively, evidence that estrogen generated locally is protective in the injured male NSDA pathway indicates the great therapeutic potential of harnessing central steroid synthesis to ameliorate neurodegenerative disorders. A clearer understanding of the relative contributions and inter-relationships of central and systemic steroids within the NSDA system is an important goal for future studies.