1. Double, triple and quadruple whole-cell voltage recordings were made simultaneously from different parts of the apical dendritic arbor and the soma of adult layer 5 (L5) pyramidal neurons. We investigated the membrane mechanisms that support the conduction of dendritic action potentials (APs) between the dendritic and axonal AP initiation zones and their influence on the subsequent AP pattern. 2. The duration of the current injection to the distal dendritic initiation zone controlled the degree of coupling with the axonal initiation zone and the AP pattern. 3. Two components of the distally evoked regenerative potential were pharmacologically distinguished: a rapidly rising peak potential that was TTX sensitive and a slowly rising plateau-like potential that was Cd(2+) and Ni(2+) sensitive and present only with longer-duration current injection. 4. The amplitude of the faster forward-propagating Na(+)-dependent component and the amplitude of the back-propagating AP fell into two classes (more distinctly in the forward-propagating case). Current injection into the dendrite altered propagation in both directions. 5. Somatic current injections that elicited single Na(+) APs evoked bursts of Na(+) APs when current was injected simultaneously into the proximal apical dendrite. The mechanism did not depend on dendritic Na(+)-Ca(2+) APs. 6. A three-compartment model of a L5 pyramidal neuron is proposed. It comprises the distal dendritic and axonal AP initiation zones and the proximal apical dendrite. Each compartment contributes to the initiation and to the pattern of AP discharge in a distinct manner. Input to the three main dendritic arbors (tuft dendrites, apical oblique dendrites and basal dendrites) has a dominant influence on only one of these compartments. Thus, the AP pattern of L5 pyramids reflects the laminar distribution of synaptic activity in a cortical column.