Sexual differentiation of central vasopressin and vasotocin systems in vertebrates: different mechanisms, similar endpoints

Neuroscience. 2006;138(3):947-55. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.07.050. Epub 2005 Nov 28.


Vasopressin neurons in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and amygdala and vasotocin neurons in homologous areas in non-mammalian vertebrates show some of the most consistently found neural sex differences, with males having more cells and denser projections than females. These projections have been implicated in social and reproductive behaviors but also in autonomic functions. The sex differences in these projections may cause as well as prevent sex differences in these functions. This paper discusses the anatomy, steroid dependency, and sexual differentiation of these neurons. Although the final steps in sexual differentiation of vasopressin/vasotocin expression may be similar across vertebrate species, what triggers differentiation may vary dramatically. For example, during development, estrogen masculinizes vasopressin expression in rats but feminizes its counterpart in Japanese quail. Apparently, nature consistently finds a way of maintaining sex differences in vasopressin and vasotocin pathways, suggesting that the function of these differences is important enough that it was conserved during evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Coturnix
  • Estrogens / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Sex Differentiation
  • Vasopressins / physiology*
  • Vasotocin / physiology*
  • Vertebrates / physiology*


  • Androgens
  • Estrogens
  • Vasopressins
  • Vasotocin