We have examined the effects of diazepam on the stress-induced increase in extracellular dopamine and norepinephrine in the medial prefrontal cortex using in vivo microdialysis. In naive rats, acute tail pressure (30 min) elicited an increase in the concentrations of dopamine and norepinephrine in extracellular fluid of medial prefrontal cortex (+54 and +50%, respectively). Diazepam (2.5 mg/kg, i.p.) decreased the basal concentration of extracellular dopamine and norepinephrine. Diazepam also attenuated the stress-evoked increase in the absolute concentrations of extracellular dopamine (+17%), but did not alter the stress-induced increase in norepinephrine (+41%). However, when the drug-induced decrease in basal dopamine and norepinephrine concentration was taken into account, the stress-induced net increase in dopamine above the new baseline was equivalent to that obtained in vehicle pretreated rats, whereas the net increase in norepinephrine was almost twice that obtained in control subjects. In rats previously exposed to chronic cold (three to four weeks at 5 degrees C), tail pressure again produced an increase in the concentrations of dopamine and norepinephrine in the medial prefrontal cortex (+42% and +92%, respectively). However, in these chronically stressed rats, diazepam no longer decreased basal dopamine or norepinephrine in extracellular fluid, nor did it affect the stress-induced increase in the concentrations of these catecholamines. These data indicate that diazepam has complex effects on the extracellular concentrations of dopamine and norepinephrine which vary depending upon whether the rat is undisturbed or stressed during the period of drug exposure as well as the rat's prior history of exposure to stress. Moreover, these data raise questions regarding the role of catecholamines in the mechanism by which diazepam exerts its anxiolytic properties.