Several of the best-studied sex differences in the mammalian brain are ascribed to the hormonal control of cell death. This conclusion is based primarily on correlations between pyknotic cell counts in development and counts of mature neurons in adulthood; the molecular mechanisms of hormone-regulated, sexually dimorphic cell death are unknown. We asked whether Bax, a member of the Bcl-2 family of proteins that is required for cell death in many developing neurons, might be essential for sex differences in neuron number. We compared Bax knockout mice and their WT siblings, focusing on two regions of the mouse forebrain that show opposite patterns of sexual differentiation: the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, in which males have more neurons than do females, and the anteroventral periventricular nucleus (AVPV), where females have more neurons overall and many more dopaminergic neurons than do males. Testosterone, or its metabolites, is responsible for the sex differences in both nuclei. A null mutation of the Bax gene completely eliminated sex differences in overall cell number in both the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and AVPV. Thus, Bax-dependent cell death is required for sexual differentiation of cell number, regardless of whether testosterone decreases or increases cell death. In contrast, the sex difference in AVPV dopaminergic cell number, as measured by tyrosine hydroxylase immunohistochemistry, was not affected by Bax gene deletion, demonstrating heterogeneity of mechanisms controlling cell number within a single nucleus.
Forger NG, Rosen GJ, Waters EM, Jacob D, Simerly RB, de Vries GJ. 2004. Deletion of Bax eliminates sex differences in the mouse forebrain. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 101:13666-13671