Weight loss is known to alter food intake and drug self-administration, but the neural basis of this is unknown. Therefore, we studied effects of weight loss on neurochemistry of a brain mechanism involved in behavior reinforcement. In rats reduced 20-30% below normal weight, basal extracellular dopamine (DA) in the nucleus accumbens (NAC) decreased up to 50% (p < 0.01), as measured by in vivo microdialysis. No such change was observed in dorsal striatum (STR) or medial prefrontal cortex. In underweight rats, systemic amphetamine (1.5 mg/kg i.p.) transiently restored extracellular DA, but only to basal normal levels. Morphine (20 mg/kg i.p.) or a meal also increased DA, but the percent increase was significantly smaller in underweight than normal weight animals. Amphetamine infused locally by reverse dialysis in the NAC increased extracellular DA more in underweight animals than controls, suggesting that DA had accumulated in the presynaptic terminals. This was confirmed by finding significantly more DA in homogenized NAC micropunches of underweight rats. Receptor counts in micropunches and quantitative receptor autoradiography showed 3H- SCH23390 and 3H-spiperone D1- and D2-type binding in the NAC, STR, frontal cortex and hypothalamus did not change significantly. Locomotor activity was depressed suggesting that low DA release in the NAC may be related to energy conservation during weight loss. Low extracellular DA may also underlie the increase in food and drug intake typically observed in underweight animals and humans when they attempt to restore extracellular DA levels by natural or artificial means.