Discharge properties in response to intracellularly applied, rectangular currents were measured in units of the mid (lateralis dorsalis and centrolateral nuclei) and posterolateral (lateralis posterior and pulvinar nuclei) thalamus of conscious cats. A separate aim was to determine if neuronal excitability changed in association with changes in stimulus-evoked activity after the animals were trained to discriminate between two acoustic stimuli when performing a conditioned motor response. Low threshold spike (l.t.s.) discharges were observed in three of 272 cells given 1 nA intracellular, hyperpolarizing current pulses of 40 ms duration. This finding supports the view that thalamic neurons of conscious animals operate mainly in the relay as opposed to the oscillatory mode. Application of larger and longer hyperpolarizing currents in the cells produced rebound l.t.s. discharges, supporting the expectation that most thalamic neurons are capable of producing this type of discharge. Decrements of spike afterhyperpolarizations (AHP) and broadening of spike bases upon repeated discharge also were observed in each area of the thalamus studied. After conditioning, changes were found in the posterolateral thalamus (but not in the mid-thalamus) in the proportions of cells with spontaneous, rapid (>/=50 Hz), repetitive, discharges (RRD) and rapid, sustained discharges at rates >/=100 Hz during application of depolarizing current (RSD). In the posterolateral thalamus the percentage of units responding to 1 nA depolarization with RSD fell from 71% before conditioning to 45% after conditioning. The percentage of cells with RRD decreased from 69% to 46%. The changes were accompanied by a 3 mV hyperpolarization of the membrane potentials of the cells and a decrease in baseline activity. After conditioning, increases in excitability were found in cells of the mid thalamus that responded selectively to the click conditioned stimulus (CS) that elicited the conditioned response, and decreases in excitability were found in cells of the posterolateral thalamus that responded to the discriminative acoustic stimulus (DS) to which the animals were trained not to respond. An earlier study showed a potentiation of discharge in response to the CS in units of the midthalamus after similar conditioning and a reduction of the proportion of DS responsive units and peak discharge to the DS in units of the posterolateral thalamus. We conclude that the discharge properties of units of the mid and posterolateral thalamus can change to support discrimination between acoustic stimuli of different functional significance after conditioning.