We have previously demonstrated that neuronal oxytocin mRNA increases during the pubertal development of female rats. In this paper we have examined the factors that regulate this developmental increase in both male and female rats. Northern blot analysis demonstrated that neural oxytocin mRNA increased 5- to 10-fold from postnatal day 20 (P20) to P60 in animals of both sexes, coincident with puberty. Mature male rats and females at all stages of the estrous cycle expressed similar levels of neural oxytocin mRNA. Pubertal up-regulation of oxytocin mRNA was largely, but not completely, inhibited by prepubescent gonadectomy, indicating a requirement for intact gonads as well as some other as yet undefined factor(s). Pubertal treatment of gonadectomized animals with estradiol or testosterone abolished the effects of gonadectomy; treated animals expressed levels of neural oxytocin mRNA similar to those in controls. However, treatment of prepubertal animals with estradiol or testosterone from P10 to P20 had no effect on oxytocin mRNA levels, suggesting that neural maturation or other factors are necessary requisites for steroid sensitivity. To determine whether neural activin played any role in regulating oxytocin mRNA during puberty, we examined levels of inhibin/activin beta A-chain mRNA. This mRNA was expressed at similar levels in all brain regions and did not vary as a function of gonadectomy or steroid treatment, making it unlikely that activin mediates the observed changes. Together, these data indicate that neural oxytocin mRNA is induced by gonadal steroids during puberty, and suggest a mechanism for coordinating development of reproductive functions with other pubertal changes.