Conversion of androgen to estrogen in the rat brain is catalyzed by aromatase enzymes. The maximum concentrations of these enzymes are found within the hypothalamus and amygdala, where they appear to play an important role in the process by which androgens affect both behavior and neuroendocrine function. In the present study, we measured the levels of aromatase activity (AA) in 20 nuclei and brain regions of the adult rat brain. Individual nuclei were microdissected from 600-micron frozen sections. Tissues from 3 animals were pooled, and AA was measured by an in vitro radiometric assay that quantifies the stereospecific production of 3H2O from [1 beta-3H]androstenedione as an index of estrogen formation. We report that AA is heterogeneously distributed within the rat brain. The greatest amounts of activity were found in the bed nucleus (n.) of the stria terminalis (700 protein fmol/h . mg) and in the medial (MA) and cortical amygdala (400-600 fmol/h . mg protein) of the male. There was an evident rostral-caudal and medial-lateral gradient in AA throughout the diencephalon. Activity was high in the periventricular preoptic n. and medial preoptic n.; intermediate in the suprachiasmatic preoptic n., anterior hypothalamus, periventricular anterior hypothalamus, and ventromedial n.; and low in the arcuate n.-median eminence, lateral preoptic n., supraoptic n., dorsomedial n., and lateral hypothalamus. Regions devoid of measurable AA included the medial and lateral septum, caudate-putamen, hippocampus, and parietal cortex. In the female, AA was greatest in the MA and cortical amygdala. We found that AA in the MA, stria terminalis n., suprachiasmatic preoptic n., periventricular preoptic in., medial preoptic n., anterior hypothalamus, and ventromedial n. was significantly greater (P less than 0.05) in males than in females. Orchidectomy reduced AA to levels seen in females, and administration of testosterone to castrated males restored AA in these areas. No significant sex differences were observed in any other hypothalamic or amygdaloid nuclei, although AA was increased by testosterone treatment in the periventricular anterior hypothalamus, arcuate n.-median eminence, and lateral hypothalamus. Our results provide a quantitative profile of AA in specific hypothalamic and limbic nuclei of the rat brain as well as information on the control of AA within these discrete regions.