Drug seeking is significantly regulated by drug-associated cues and associative learning between environmental cues and cocaine reward is mediated by dopamine transmission within the nucleus accumbens (NAc). However, dopamine transmission during early acquisition of a cue-cocaine association has never been assessed because of the technical difficulties associated with resolving cue-evoked and cocaine-evoked dopamine release within the same conditioning trial. Here, we used fast-scan cyclic voltammetry to measure sub-second fluctuations in dopamine concentration within the NAc core and shell during the initial acquisition of a cue-cocaine Pavlovian association. Within the NAc core, cue-evoked dopamine release developed during conditioning. However, within the NAc shell, the predictive cue appeared to cause an unconditioned decrease in dopamine concentration. The pharmacological effects of cocaine also differed between sub-regions, as cocaine increased phasic dopamine release events within the NAc shell but not the core. Thus, real-time measurements not only revealed the initial development of a conditioned neurochemical response but also demonstrated differential phasic dopamine transmission patterns across NAc sub-regions during the acquisition of a cue-cocaine association. © 2009 Federation of European Neuroscience Societies and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.