Acute cocaine administration preferentially increases extracellular dopamine levels in nucleus accumbens as compared with striatum. To investigate whether a differential effect of cocaine on dopamine uptake could explain this observation, we used in vivo electrochemical recordings in anesthetized rats in conjunction with a paradigm that measures dopamine clearance and diffusion without the confounding effects of release. When a finite amount of dopamine was pressure-ejected at 5-min intervals from a micropipette adjacent to the electrode, transient and reproducible increases in dopamine levels were detected. In response to 15 mg/kg of cocaine-HCl (i.p.), these signals increased in nucleus accumbens, indicating significant inhibition of the dopamine transporter. The time course of the dopamine signal increase paralleled that of behavioral changes in unanesthetized rats receiving the same dose of cocaine. In contrast, no change in the dopamine signal was detected in dorsal striatum; however, when the dose of cocaine was increased to 20 mg/kg, enhancement of the dopamine signal occurred in both brain areas. Quantitative autoradiography with [3H]mazindol revealed that the affinity of the dopamine transporter for cocaine was similar in both brain areas but that the density of [3H]mazindol binding sites in nucleus accumbens was 60% lower than in dorsal striatum. Tissue dopamine levels in nucleus accumbens were 44% lower. Our results suggest that a difference in dopamine uptake may explain the greater sensitivity of nucleus accumbens to cocaine as compared with dorsal striatum. Furthermore, this difference may be due to fewer dopamine transporter molecules in nucleus accumbens for cocaine to inhibit, rather than to a higher affinity of the transporter for cocaine.