Nicotine, the main psychoactive ingredient of tobacco smoke, induces negative motivational symptoms during withdrawal that contribute to relapse in dependent individuals. The neurobiological mechanisms underlying how the brain signals nicotine withdrawal remain poorly understood. Using electrophysiological, genetic, pharmacological, and behavioral methods, we demonstrate that tonic but not phasic activity is reduced during nicotine withdrawal in ventral tegmental area dopamine (DA) neurons, and that this pattern of signaling acts through DA D2 and adenosine A2A, but not DA D1, receptors. Selective blockade of phasic DA activity prevents the expression of conditioned place aversions to a single injection of nicotine in nondependent mice, but not to withdrawal from chronic nicotine in dependent mice, suggesting a shift from phasic to tonic dopaminergic mediation of the conditioned motivational response in nicotine dependent and withdrawn animals. Either increasing or decreasing activity at D2 or A2A receptors prevents the aversive motivational response to withdrawal from chronic nicotine, but not to acute nicotine. Modification of D1 receptor activity prevents the aversive response to acute nicotine, but not to nicotine withdrawal. This double dissociation demonstrates that the specific pattern of tonic DA activity at D2 receptors is a key mechanism in signaling the motivational effects experienced during nicotine withdrawal, and may represent a unique target for therapeutic treatments for nicotine addiction.