Molecular changes in the neostriatum of human subjects who died with a history of cocaine abuse were revealed in discrete cell populations by means of the techniques of in situ hybridization histochemistry and in vitro receptor binding and autoradiography. Cocaine subjects had a history of repeated cocaine use and had cocaine and/or cocaine metabolites on board at the time of death. These subjects were compared to control subjects that had both a negative history and toxicology of cocaine use. Selective alterations in mRNA levels of striatal neuropeptides were detected in cocaine subjects compared to control subjects, especially for the opioid peptides. Marked reductions in the levels of enkephalin mRNA and mu opiate receptor binding were found in the caudate and putamen, concomitant with elevations in levels of dynorphin mRNA and kappa opiate receptor binding in the putamen and caudate, respectively. Dopamine uptake site binding was reduced in the caudate and putamen of cocaine subjects. The greater magnitude of changes in the dorsolateral striatum (caudate and putamen) as opposed to the ventromedial striatum (nucleus accumbens) suggests that cocaine abuse preferentially alters the biosynthetic activity of striatal systems associated with sensorimotor functioning. Additionally, an imbalance in the activity of the two major striatal output pathways in cocaine users is implicated because peptide mRNA levels were reduced in enkephalinergic striatopallidal neurons and increased in dynorphinergic striatonigral neurons. Another imbalance, that of reductions of transmitter mRNA and receptor expression associated with euphoria (enkephalin and mu opiate receptors), together with elevations in mRNAs of transmitter systems associated with dysphoria (dynorphin and kappa opiate receptors), suggests a model of dysphoria and craving in the human cocaine addict brain.