Epidemiological and clinical studies provide growing evidence for marked sex differences in the incidence of certain neurological disorders that are largely attributed to the neuroprotective effects of estrogen. Thus there is a keen interest in the clinical potential of estrogen-related compounds to act as novel therapeutic agents in conditions of neuronal injury and neurodegeneration such as Parkinson's disease. Studies employing animal models of neurodegeneration in ovariectomised female rats treated with estrogen support this hypothesis, yet experimental evidence for sex differences in the CNS response to direct neurotoxic insult is limited and, as yet, few studies have addressed the role played by endogenously produced hormones in neuroprotection. Therefore, in this study we aimed to determine (1) whether the prevailing levels of sex steroid hormones in the intact rat provide a degree of protection against neuronal assault in females compared with males and (2) whether sex differences depend solely on male/female differences in circulating estrogen levels or whether androgens could also play a role. Using the selective, centrally administered neurotoxin 6-hydroxydopamine, which induces a lesion in the nigrostriatal dopaminergic pathway similar to that seen in Parkinson's disease, we have demonstrated a sexually dimorphic (male-dominant), dose-dependent susceptibility in rats. Furthermore, following gonadectomy, dopamine depletion resulting from a submaximal dose of 6-hydroxydopamine (1 microg) was reduced in male rats, whereas in females, ovariectomy enhanced dopamine depletion. Administration of the nonaromatizable androgen dihydrotestosterone to gonadectomized animals had no significant effect on 6-hydroxydopamine toxicity in either males or females, whereas treatment of gonadectomized males and females with physiological levels of estrogen restored the extent of striatal dopamine loss to that seen in intact rats, viz, estrogen therapy reduced lesion size in females but increased it in males. Taken together, our findings strongly suggest that there are sex differences in the mechanisms whereby nigrostriatal dopaminergic neurones respond to injury. They also reveal that the reported clinically beneficial effects of estrogen in females may not be universally adopted for males. While the reasons for this gender-determined difference in response to the activational action of estrogen are unknown, we hypothesize that they may well be related to the early organizational events mediated by sex steroid hormones, which ultimately result in the sexual differentiation of the brain.