The dorsal column nuclei, cuneatus and gracilis, play a fundamental role in the processing and integration of somesthetic ascending information. Intracellular and patch-clamp recordings obtained in cat in vivo have shown that cuneothalamic projection neurons present two modes of activity: oscillatory and tonic (Canedo et al 1998 Neuroscience 84 603-17). The former is the basis of generating, in sleep and anaesthetized states, slow, delta and spindle rhythms under the control of the cerebral cortex (Mariño et al 2000 Neuroscience 95 657-73). The latter is needed, during wakefulness, to process somesthetic information in real time. To study this behaviour we have developed the first realistic computational model of the cuneothalamic projection neurons. The modelling was guided by experimental recordings, which suggest the existence of hyperpolarization-activated inward currents, transient low- and high-threshold calcium currents, and calcium-activated potassium currents. The neuronal responses were simulated during (1) sleep, (2) transition from sleep to wakefulness and (3) wakefulness under both excitatory and inhibitory synaptic input. In wakefulness the model predicts a set of synaptically driven firing modes that could be associated with information processing strategies in the middle cuneate nucleus.