A clear neuroendocrine sex difference lies in the ability of the female rat to produce an ovulatory surge of luteinizing hormone. Preoptic neurons, as they respond to estrogen and progesterone, have been proven to be involved in this mechanism, with an emphasis on the possible participation of neurons in the anteroventral periventricular nucleus and the suprachiasmatic portion of the preoptic area (POA). Further, prominent morphological sex differences have been reported in the rat medial POA. To examine expression of the estrogen receptor (ER) and the progesterone receptor (PR) messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in these critical preoptic neurons, we have used in situ hybridization with tritiated single-stranded DNA probes complimentary for ER and PR mRNA. ER mRNA containing cells were found in the periventricular, suprachiasmatic and medical preoptic cell groups, in a manner which agrees with steroid hormone autoradiography. In the female rat, preoptic neurons expressing PR mRNA were distributed very similarly to those for ER mRNA. Moreover, in the male rat brain, all subsets of preoptic neurons which express the PR gene in the female were also detected in the male. Thus, the distribution of PR expressing cells was very similar between females and males. We conclude that the insensitivity to the male to progesterone, as regards the hormonal control of ovulation, cannot be due to a total failure of PR gene expression in a specific subset of POA neurons. Instead, male preoptic neurons must be less sensitive to neural or hormonal inducers in the physiological range or perhaps lack sufficient levels of a transcription factor linking progesterone responsive elements to the start sites of hormone-controlled genes.