Addictive drugs share with palatable food the property of increasing extracellular dopamine (DA), preferentially in the nucleus accumbens shell rather than in the core. However, by acting directly on the brain, drugs bypass the adaptive mechanisms (habituation) that constrain the responsiveness of accumbens shell DA to food reward, abnormally facilitating Pavlovian incentive learning and promoting the acquisition of abnormal DA-releasing properties by drug conditioned stimuli. Thus, whereas Pavlovian food conditioned stimuli release core but not shell DA, drug conditioned stimuli do the opposite, releasing shell but not core DA. This process, which results in the acquisition of excessive incentive-motivational properties by drug conditioned stimuli, initiates the drug addiction process. Neuroadaptive processes related to the chronic influence of drugs on subcortical DA might secondarily impair the function of prefronto-striatal loops, resulting in impairments in impulse control and decision making that form the basis for the compulsive feature of drug seeking and its relapsing character.