Neocortical pyramidal neurons in vivo are subject to an intense synaptic background activity but little is known of how this activity affects cellular responsiveness and what function it may serve. These issues were examined in morphologically reconstructed neocortical pyramidal neurons in which synaptic background activity was simulated based on recent measurements in cat parietal cortex. We show that background activity can be decomposed into two components: a tonically active conductance and voltage fluctuations. Previous studies have mostly focused on the conductance effect, revealing that background activity is responsible for a decrease in responsiveness, which imposes severe conditions of coincidence of inputs necessary to discharge the cell. It is shown here, in contrast, that responsiveness is enhanced if voltage fluctuations are taken into account; in this case the model can produce responses to inputs that would normally be subthreshold. This effect is analyzed by dissecting and comparing the different components of background activity, as well as by evaluating the contribution of parameters such as the dendritic morphology, the distribution of leak currents, the value of axial resistivity, the densities of voltage-dependent currents, and the release parameters underlying background activity. Interestingly, the model's optimal responsiveness was obtained when voltage fluctuations were of the same order as those measured intracellularly in vivo. Possible consequences were also investigated at the population level, where the presence of background activity allowed networks of pyramidal neurons to instantaneously detect inputs that are small compared with the classical detection threshold. These results suggest, at the single-cell level, that the presence of voltage fluctuations has a determining influence on cellular responsiveness and that these should be taken into account in models of background activity. At the network level, we predict that background activity provides the necessary drive for detecting events that would normally be undetectable. Experiments are suggested to explore this possible functional role for background activity.