Control of cell number in the sexually dimorphic brain and spinal cord

J Neuroendocrinol. 2009 Mar;21(4):393-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2009.01825.x.


The hormonal control of cell death is currently the best-established mechanism for creating sex differences in cell number in the brain and spinal cord. For example, males have more cells than do females in the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNSTp) and spinal nucleus of the bulbocavernosus (SNB), whereas females have a cell number advantage in the anteroventral periventricular nucleus (AVPV). In each case, the difference in cell number in adulthood correlates with a sex difference in the number of dying cells at some point in development. Mice with over- or under-expression of cell death genes have been used to test more directly the contribution of cell death to neural sex differences, to identify molecular mechanisms involved, and to determine the behavioural consequences of suppressing developmental cell death. Bax is a pro-death gene of the Bcl-2 family that is singularly important for apoptosis in neural development. In mice lacking bax, the number of cells in the BNSTp, SNB and AVPV are significantly increased, and sex differences in total cell number in each of these regions are eliminated. Cells rescued by bax gene deletion in the BNSTp express markers of differentiated neurones and the androgen receptor. On the other hand, sex differences in other phenotypically identified populations, such as vasopressin-expressing neurones in the BNSTp or dopaminergic neurones in AVPV, are not affected by either bax deletion or bcl-2 over-expression. Possible mechanisms by which testosterone may regulate cell death in the nervous system are discussed, as are the behavioural effects of eliminating sex differences in neuronal cell number.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cell Count
  • Cell Death / physiology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Androgen / metabolism
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Spinal Cord / growth & development
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*
  • Vasopressins / metabolism
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein / metabolism


  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Receptors, Androgen
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein
  • Vasopressins
  • Dopamine