Previous research has suggested the potential involvement of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in psychostimulant reinforcement. In particular, we have found significant correlations between electric footshock-induced increases in plasma corticosterone and the acquisition, or lack thereof, of intravenous cocaine self-administration in rats. The experiments presented here were designed to further determine the role for corticosterone in cocaine reinforcement in rats by decreasing plasma levels of the hormone with surgical and pharmacological adrenalectomies. Bilateral adrenalectomy completely abolished the acquisition of intravenous cocaine self-administration over a wide range of doses (0.03125 to 1.0 mg/kg/infusion) without affecting food maintained responding. This suppression of self-administration was partially reversed by adding corticosterone (100 micrograms/ml) to the rats' drinking water. In another group of rats, pretreatment with metyrapone, which blocks the synthesis of corticosterone, resulted in dose-related decreases in ongoing cocaine self-administration. These data suggest that corticosterone is not only important, but may also be necessary for both the acquisition and maintenance of cocaine reinforcement in rats.