A study was undertaken to investigate the response of the rodent somatosensory barrel cortex to single-whisker, near-threshold vibrissal stimuli. Cortical responses to controlled whisker deflections were recorded by (i) conventional multi-unit extracellular recording within the cytochrome oxidase rich barrels centers and the interbarrel septa, and (ii) intrinsic signal optical imaging, a technique that provides a spatial view of cortical activation thought to be related to the deoxygenation of hemoglobin in activated areas. Barrel cortex neurons responded weakly to whisker deflections of 0.04 degrees. Their response to a series of small stimuli of increasing amplitude was well-fitted by a logarithmic function. Responses to larger stimuli declined monotonically with distance from the center of the barrel column, and were characterized by greater onset and offset firing rates, by greater post-excitatory reduction of firing to below spontaneous levels, and by shorter response latency. In comparison to measurements taken previously from primary vibrissal afferent fibers, we conclude that cortical cells can respond to activity in a very small fraction of first-order sensory neurons.