We investigated whether the expression of the plasticity-associated gene, zif268, was associated with memories retrieved by exposure to a discrete stimulus that had been associated with cocaine, either self-administered or administered noncontingently. In the absence of drug, passive presentation of a cocaine-associated light stimulus induced changes in the expression of zif268 measured by in situ hybridization within a limbic cortical–ventral striatal circuit that was not only regionally selective but related to whether the rats had originally received response-contingent or noncontingent stimulus-drug pairings. In rats that had self-administered drug, the cocaine–conditioned stimulus (CS) increased zif268 expression in neurons of the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens core and shell, and basal nucleus of the amygdala but not hippocampus, prelimbic area of the medial prefrontal cortex or amygdala central nucleus. The same CS that had been associated with cocaine administered noncontingently additionally increased zif268 mRNA levels in area Cg1 of the anterior cingulate cortex, ventral and lateral regions of the orbitofrontal cortex and lateral nucleus of the amygdala. Zif268 induction was related to the predictive relationship between the stimulus and cocaine as no changes were seen in cocaine-experienced rats that had received unpaired light and drug presentations during training. Thus, zif268 expression is increased by appetitively (drug) conditioned stimuli after Pavlovian learning. Zif268 may participate in the molecular mechanisms underlying the reconsolidation or re-encoding of Pavlovian stimulus–drug associations across a distributed limbic cortical-ventral striatal neural network and that may contribute to the basis of the enduring drug-seeking behaviour produced by environmental cues.