The brain is a steroidogenic organ that expresses steroidogenic enzymes and produces neurosteroids. Although considerable information is now available regarding the steroidogenic capacity of the brain, little is known regarding the steroidogenic pathway and relative contributions of astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and neurons to neurosteroidogenesis. In the present study, we investigated differential gene expression of the key steroidogenic enzymes using RT-PCR and quantitatively evaluated the production of neurosteroids by highly purified astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and neurons from the cerebral cortex of neonatal rat brains using specific and sensitive RIAs. Astrocytes appear to be the most active steroidogenic cells in the brain. These cells express cytochrome P450 side-chain cleavage (P450scc), 17alpha-hydroxylase/C17-20-lyase (P450c17), 3beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3betaHSD), 17beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (17betaHSD), and cytochrome P450 aromatase (P450arom) and produce pregnenolone (P5), progesterone (P4), dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), androstenedione (A4), testosterone (T), estradiol, and estrone. Oligodendrocytes express only P450scc and 3betaHSD and produce P5, P4, and A4. These cells do not express P450c17, 17betaHSD, or P450arom or produce DHEA, T, or estrogen. Neurons express P450scc, P450c17, 3betaHSD, and P450arom and produce P5, DHEA, A4, and estrogen, but do not express 17betaHSD or produce T. By comparing the ability of each cell type in the production of neurosteroids, astrocytes are the major producer of P4, DHEA, and androgens, whereas oligodendrocytes are predominantly the producer of P5 and neurons of estrogens. These findings serve to define the neurosteroidogenic pathway, with special emphasis on the dominant role of astrocytes and their interaction with oligodendrocytes and neurons in the genesis of DHEA and active sex steroids. Thus, we propose that neurosteroidogenesis is accomplished by a tripartite contribution of the three cell types in the brain.