Progesterone receptor (PR) messenger RNA (mRNA) is concentrated in neurons of the preoptic area and other regions of the rat hypothalamus where it is colocalized with the estrogen receptor and regulated by changes in the steroid hormonal milieu. To date, little is known about the regulation of PR mRNA by estrogens and whether antiestrogenic compounds are capable of modulating its expression. The present studies used in situ hybridization to ascertain the time course of PR mRNA regulation in the medial preoptic nucleus by 17beta-estradiol, determine the effective dose required to elicit a response, and compare the efficacy of 17beta-estradiol with a variety of estrogenic or antiestrogenic compounds. The first series of studies revealed that the treatment of ovariectomized rats with 17beta-estradiol resulted in an increase in PR expression within 2 h, after which it remained elevated until 10 h postinjection and then returned to baseline levels. When ovariectomized rats were injected with 25-1000 ng/kg of 17beta-estradiol and euthanized 6 h later, a dose-dependent increase in the level of PR mRNA was observed, with a maximal response at 1000 ng/kg and an EC50 of 93.5 ng/kg. Subsequent studies evaluated the efficacy of a variety of estrogenic and antiestrogenic compounds in the rat preoptic nucleus. 17Beta-estradiol, diethylstilbestrol, and 17alpha-estradiol all significantly increased the level of PR mRNA, although the degree of induction varied with each compound. The injection of tamoxifen, raloxifene, toremifene, droloxifene, clomiphene, GW 5638, or ICI 182,780 had no significant estrogenic effect on PR gene expression at the dose evaluated. In contrast, when tamoxifen or raloxifene, but not ICI 182,780, was administered in the antagonist mode, a significant dose-related decrease in the estradiol-induced level of PR mRNA was seen in the preoptic area. The results of these studies clearly demonstrate that PR mRNA expression in the rat preoptic area is rapidly stimulated by a small dose of 17beta-estradiol. Moreover, the present report has also shown that the estrogenic nature of compounds such as tamoxifen, raloxifene, toremifene, droloxifene, clomiphene, and GW 5638 cannot be predicted by their activity in peripheral tissues. Together, the results of these studies provide important information about the central activity of estrogens and provide evidence for their tissue-specifc actions in the rat.