• VMN;
  • synaptic plasticity;
  • sex differences;
  • estrus cycle;
  • stereology;
  • hypothalamus


Neurons in the ventrolateral division of the hypothalamic ventromedial nucleus (VMNvl) display a remarkable estrogen-dependent functional and structural plasticity, which is likely to be mediated, in part at least, by neuronal afferents. The present study was designed to determine whether the number of synapses per neuron and the size of individual synapses in the VMNvl vary across the estrus cycle and, also, whether they differ between the sexes. To accomplish this, the VMNvl of adult female rats at proestrus or diestrus day 1 and of age-matched male rats was analyzed using electron microscopy. We found that a single VMNvl neuron receives around 7,000 synapses during diestrus and ∼10,000 during proestrus. This estrus cycle-related variation is accounted for by increases in the number of all types of synapses. In males, the number of synapses received by each VMNvl neuron is similar to that of diestrus rats (∼7,500). However, in males the number of axodendritic and axospinous synapses is smaller than in proestrus rats, whereas the number of axosomatic synapses is higher than in diestrus rats. In addition, we found that the size of the postsynaptic densities of axospinous and axosomatic synapses is consistently larger in males than in females. Our results show that the synaptic organization of the VMNvl is sexually dimorphic, with females having more dendritic synapses and males more somatic synapses. They also show that the synaptic plasticity induced by estrogen in the VMNvl is characterized by changes in the number, but not the size, of the synapses. J. Comp. Neurol. 484:68–79, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.