The barrel cortex has yielded a wealth of information about cortical plasticity in recent years. Barrel cortex is one of the few cortical areas studied so far where plasticity can be examined from birth through to adulthood. This review looks at plasticity mechanisms in three periods of life: early post-natal development, adolescence and adulthood. Separate consideration is given to depression and potentiation mechanisms. Plasticity can be induced in barrel cortex by whisker deprivation. Single whisker experience leads to expansion of the area of cortex responding to the spared whisker. In early post-natal life, plasticity occurs in thalamocortical pathways, while later in adolescence, intracortical pathways become more important. Ablation of the spared whisker's barrel prevents expression of plasticity in the cortex. A row of lesions between the spared and an adjacent barrel prevents expression of plasticity in the adjacent barrel. This evidence, together with latency of response data and an analysis of pathways capable of inducing long-term potentiation (LTP) within barrel cortex, leads to the view that horizontal and/or diagonal pathways between barrels are responsible for plasticity expression. The mouse has become the most commonly mutated mammalian species and has a well-developed barrel cortex. Therefore, mutations can be used to study the role of particular molecules in experience-dependent plasticity of barrel cortex. Through this work, it has become clear that the major post-synaptic density protein, alpha-CaMKII, and its T286 autophosphorylation site are essential for experience-dependent plasticity. This points to a major role for excitatory transmission in cortical plasticity and raises the possibility that LTP like mechanisms are involved. Furthermore, transgenic mice carrying a reporter gene for CRE have provided evidence that CRE-mediated gene expression is also involved in barrel cortex plasticity. This view is supported by studies on alpha/delta CREB knockouts, and provides a starting point for studying the role of gene expression in experience-dependent cortical plasticity.