The expression of immediate-early genes of the fos/jun leucine zipper family can be regulated in striatal neurons by stimuli affecting the dopaminergic nigrostriatal system. The regulatory effects are gene specific, region specific, and striatal compartment specific. In the experiments reported here, we have explored the possibility that dopaminergic stimulation might also affect striatal expression of NGFI- A, a member of the zinc finger family of immediate-early genes. We treated healthy adult rats with amphetamine or cocaine and monitored the acute response of striatal neurons by in situ hybridization with oligonucleotide probes for NGFI-A mRNA. Both drugs evoked rapid, anatomically patterned increases in NGFI-A mRNA expression in the dorsal striatum (caudoputamen) and in the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens, olfactory tubercle). The main response to each drug was in medium-sized neurons, known to be the projection neurons of the striatum. At every dose of amphetamine eliciting a response, the increased NGFI-A mRNA expression was preferentially concentrated in striosomes of the rostral caudoputamen, whereas cocaine at each dose given induced expression of NGFI-A mRNA in both striosomes and matrix at these striatal levels. The two indirect agonists evoked NGFI-A expression in both striatal compartments farther caudally, especially in the central and medial caudoputamen. Activation by both drugs was blocked by pretreatment with the D1-selective dopamine receptor antagonist SCH23390. These patterns of NGFI-A activation are remarkably similar to those found for Fos-like immunoreactivity following acute amphetamine and cocaine treatments, suggesting that coordinate activation of members of at least two immediate-early gene families occurs in the striatum following catecholaminergic stimulation. Such patterns of induction strongly support the view that the genomic responsiveness of the striosome and of the matrix compartments of the rostral striatum are distinct at the level of early-response gene expression. These findings raise the interesting possibility that some of the well-known effects of dopaminergic stimulation on neuropeptide and neurotransmitter expression in the striatum may reflect particular combinatorial patterns of immediate-early gene activation.