Sexual differentiation of dopaminergic neurons was studied in gender- specific cultures. Dissociated cell cultures were prepared from di- or mesencephalon of gestational day 14 rat embryos and raised in the absence or presence of 17 beta-estradiol or testosterone for up to 13 days in vitro (DIV). Developmental profiles of levels of dopamine (DA) and metabolites as well as capacity for vesicular storage of the transmitter were determined by HPLC. Tyrosine hydroxylase- immunoreactive (TH-IR) neurons were counted. Higher levels of DA were measured in female than in male cultures of both brain regions. In mesencephalic cultures, the differences in DA levels were fully accounted for by sex differences in numbers of TH-IR cells, whereas no sex differences in cell numbers were found in diencephalic cultures. Dihydroxyphenylacetic acid (DOPAC) levels and vesicular storage capacity matured faster in mesencephalic than in diencephalic cultures, but no sex differences were observed. Homovanillic acid (HVA) could not be detected except in 13-DIV mesencephalic cultures. Hormonal treatment did not erase sexual differentiation of dopaminergic neurons. Irrespective of the gender, however, both steroids decreased DA and DOPAC contents in diencephalic cultures but not in mesencephalic cultures. It is proposed that sexual differentiation of dopaminergic systems proceeds in a region-specific fashion and that neurogenesis and development of various parameters of dopaminergic activity may be differentially affected. Sexual differentiation of dopaminergic neurons may be initiated independently of the action of gonadal steroid hormones and may subsequently be modified by differences in hormonal environment.