All thalamic relay cells exhibit two distinct response modes--tonic and burst--that reflect the status of a voltage-dependent, intrinsic membrane conductance. Both response modes efficiently relay information to the cortex in behaving animals, but have markedly different consequences for information processing. The lateral geniculate nucleus, which is the thalamic relay of retinal information to cortex, provides a reasonable model for all of thalamus. Compared with burst mode, geniculate relay cells that are firing in tonic mode exhibit better linear summation, but have poorer detectability for visual stimuli. The switch between the response modes can be controlled by nonretinal, modulatory afferents to these cells, such as the feedback pathway from cortex. This allows the thalamus to provide a dynamic relay that affects the nature and format of information that reaches the cortex.