On the day of birth, a surge in testicular testosterone release in male rats is critical for sexual differentiation of the brain. Steroid hormones function by binding to intracellular steroid receptors and altering gene expression; however, little is known about the signal transduction pathways altered as a consequence of steroid hormone action in developing brain. We investigated whether the increase in testosterone at birth alters the phosphorylation of CREB, a major signal transduction protein. Adjacent brain sections from male and female pups were immunocytochemically stained for serine(133) phosphorylated CREB (pCREB) or total CREB on the day of birth. Males had more pCREB-immunoreactive positive cells than females in the medial preoptic area, ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus, the arcuate nucleus, and the CA1 region of the hippocampus, but not in two thalamic nuclei. There was no sex difference in total CREB immunoreactive cell number. To determine if the sex difference in pCREB persisted 24 h after birth and whether the difference was due to testosterone, newborn female pups were injected with 100 microg of testosterone propionate, and male and control female pups were injected with vehicle. Twenty-four hours later, adjacent brain sections were immunocytochemically stained for either pCREB or CREB. We found that males and testosterone-treated females had more pCREB in the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus contrasted to control females. There were no group differences in pCREB or CREB in any other area examined. These results indicate that some of the effects of testosterone in developing brain occur via pathways associated with the phosphorylation of CREB.