Although initiation of drug abuse occurs primarily during adolescence, little is known about the central effects of nicotine and other abused drugs during this developmental period. Here evidence, derived from studies in rodents, is presented that suggests that tobacco use initiation during early adolescence results from a higher reward value of nicotine. The developmental profiles of the rewarding effects of other abused drugs, such as cocaine, differ from that of nicotine. Using in situ hybridization to quantify mRNA levels of the immediate early gene, cfos, the neuronal activating effects of nicotine in limbic and sensory cortices at different developmental stages are evaluated. Significant age changes in basal levels of cfos mRNA expression in cortical regions are observed, with a peak of responding of limbic cortices during early adolescence. A changing pattern of nicotine-induced neuronal activation is seen across the developmental spectrum, with unique differences in both limbic and sensory cortex responding during adolescence. An attentional set-shifting task was also used to evaluate whether the observed differences during adolescence reflect early functional immaturity of prefrontal cortices that regulate motivated behavior and psychostimulant responding. The finding of significantly better responding during adolescence suggests apparent functional maturity of prefrontal circuits and greater cognitive flexibility at younger ages. These findings in rodent models suggest that adolescence is a period of altered sensitivity to environmental stimuli, including abused drugs. Further efforts are required to overcome technical challenges in order to evaluate drug effects systematically in this age group.