The rat brain contains large amounts of pregnenolone (P) and dehydroepiandrosterone (D) arising from local biosynthetic pathways. We have devised a procedure for the measurement of both "neurosteroids" either unconjugated or released from their sulfate (S) or fatty acid (L) esters. The measurements were performed at the acrophase of the circadian variation of neurosteroids, and confirmed the large accumulation of P (25 +/- 8 ng/g, mean +/- SD) and of PS (19 +/- 6 ng/g) and DS (2.1 +/- 0.5 ng/g) in the brain of adult male rats. We found that fatty acid esters constitute the major species of neurosteroids in brain (PL 46 +/- 14, and DL 36 +/- 7 ng/g, in adult males). The levels of P and DS were increased by daily injection of vehicle to intact males, whereas castration, without or with testosterone or estradiol supplementation (2 mg daily for 7 days), did not produce a significant change of neurosteroids concentrations. Measurements of neurosteroids had not been previously reported in cyclic females. The levels of P, PL, and DS were identical in proestrous females and in intact males, whereas PS (26 +/- 6 ng/g) and DL (50 +/- 16 ng/g) were increased in females. Compared to proestrous females, diestrous females had lower levels of PS (19 +/- 6 ng/g), DS (1.7 +/- 0.4 ng/g), and PL (43 +/- 19 ng/g). These differences suggested a modulatory role of ovarian secretions on the metabolism of neurosteroids.