The present study investigated the role of ventral tegmental area (VTA) cyclic AMP (cAMP) systems in the behavioral sensitivity to psychostimulants in male Sprague-Dawley rats. Bilateral microinjections of cholera toxin (CTX) into the VTA (50-500 ng/500 nl/side) dose-dependently sensitized animals to the locomotor stimulant effects of systemic d-amphetamine, cocaine and apomorphine, but were without effects on morphine-induced locomotion 24 hr after microinjection. The CTX-induced behavioral sensitization to amphetamine was even greater 72 hr after microinjection, but was no longer present 14 days after intra-VTA CTX pretreatment. Coadministration of the cAMP-dependent protein kinase inhibitor H8 into the VTA blocked CTX-induced sensitization to amphetamine, suggesting that the sensitization is dependent on phosphorylation events in the VTA mediated by cAMP-dependent protein kinase. Pretreatment with CTX did not enhance amphetamine-induced dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens relative to saline controls 24 hr after microinjection. A single bilateral injection of d-amphetamine into the VTA (5 micrograms/side) produced a significant sensitization to systemic amphetamine challenge 72 hr later, and this effect was also blocked by coadministration of H8 into the VTA. These results extend previous studies which have established the importance of the VTA in the development of behavioral sensitization and suggest that cAMP systems may play a crucial role in this neuroadaptive process.