Nucleus accumbens is involved in several aspects of instrumental behavior, motivation and learning. Recent studies showed that dopamine (DA) release in the accumbens shell was significantly increased on the first day of training on a fixed ratio (FR) 5 schedule (i.e. the transition from FR1 to FR5) compared with those rats that continued FR1 training, even though the rats on their first day of FR5 training received less food reinforcement than rats continuing on the FR1 schedule. Additionally, the second day of FR5 responding was marked by a significant increase in DA release in accumbens core. The present studies employed immunohistochemical methods to characterize the changes in cellular markers of accumbens and neostriatal neural activity that occur during various stages of food-reinforced FR5 training. c-Fos and DARPP-32 immunoreactivity in accumbens shell was significantly increased on the first day of FR5 training, while core c-Fos and DARPP-32 expression showed large increases on the second day of FR5 training. Additional studies showed that c-Fos and DARPP-32 expression in neostriatum increased after more extensive training. Double-labeling studies with immunofluorescence methods indicated that increases in accumbens c-Fos and DARPP-32 expression were primarily seen in substance-P-positive neurons. These increases in accumbens c-Fos and DARPP-32 immunoreactivity seen during the initial phases of FR training may reflect several factors, including novelty, learning, stress or the presentation of a work-related challenge to the organism. Moreover, it appears that the separate subregions of the striatal complex are differentially activated at distinct phases of instrumental training.