Sexual differences in the expression of messenger RNA and in the binding of serotonin receptors (subtypes 1A and 2A) were studied by in situ hybridization and autoradiography ¿[3H]8-hydroxy-2(di-n-propylamino)tetralin and [3H]ketanserin binding) in the rat brain. Serotonin-1A receptor messenger RNA showed distinct expression patterns for female and male rats. Expression of serotonin-1A receptor messenger RNA was greater in males in subregions of the hypothalamus and amygdala, and less in males in subregions of the hippocampus. No significant differences in the distribution of serotonin-1A receptor binding sites were found between the sexes. Serotonin-2A receptor messenger RNA expression was comparable in males and females in all brain regions except the ventromedial hypothalamic nuclei, where lower levels were seen in females. However, the binding of serotonin-2A receptor measured with [3H]ketanserin was significantly higher in females in all regions of the hippocampus. In a separate study, gonadectomy in males significantly increased serotonin-1A messenger RNA content in the cortex, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala and dorsal raphe, and decreased serotonin-2A messenger RNA in ventromedial hypothalamic nuclei only. Almost all gonadectomy-induced changes were reversed by concomitant administration of testosterone. Our data provide evidence for region-specific sex differences in serotonin receptor subtype 1A and 2A transcription and concentration in the rat brain, and further suggest a modulatory role of testosterone in serotonin (particularly subtype 1A) receptor expression. Gender and gonadal steroid effects on central serotonergic systems may underlie the reported sexual dimorphisms in affective state regulation, response to psychopharmacological agonists or pituitary adrenal activation.