Results of behavioral and c-fos immunohistochemical studies have suggested that chronic food restriction and maintenance of animals at 75-80% of free-feeding body weight may increase d-1 dopamine (DA) receptor function. The purpose of the present study was to determine whether D-1 DA receptor binding and/or mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling in caudate-putamen (CPu) and nucleus accumbens (NAc) are increased in food-restricted subjects. In the first experiment, saturation binding of the D-1 DA receptor antagonist [3H]SCH-23390 indicated no difference between food-restricted and ad libitum fed rats with regard to density or affinity of d-1 binding sites in CPu or NAc. In the second experiment, activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK1/2) and cyclic AMP response element-binding protein (CREB) by i.c.v. injection of the D-1 DA receptor agonist SKF-82958 (20 microg) were markedly greater in food-restricted than ad libitum fed rats. Given a prior finding that SKF-82958 does not differentially stimulate adenylyl cyclase in CPu or NAc of food-restricted versus ad libitum fed subjects, the present results suggest that increased D-1 DA receptor-mediated ERK1/2 MAP kinase signaling may mediate the enhanced downstream activation of CREB, c-fos, and behavioral responses in food-restricted subjects. It is of interest that food restriction also increased the activation of c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase/stress-activated protein kinase, but this effect was no greater in rats injected with SKF-82958 than in those injected with saline vehicle. This represents additional evidence of increased striatal cell signaling in food-restricted subjects, presumably in response to the i.c.v. injection procedure, although the underlying receptor mechanisms remain to be determined. There were no differences between feeding groups in protein levels of the major phosphatases, MKP-2 and PP1. The upregulation of striatal MAP kinase signaling in food-restricted animals may adaptively serve to facilitate associative learning but, at the same time, increase vulnerability to the rewarding and addictive properties of abused drugs.