The human parasternal intercostal muscles are obligatory inspiratory muscles with a diminishing mechanical advantage from cranial to caudal interspaces. This study determined whether inspiratory neural drive to these muscles is graded, and whether this distribution matches regional differences in inspiratory mechanical advantage. To determine the neural drive, intramuscular EMG was recorded from the first to the fifth parasternal intercostals during resting breathing in six subjects. All interspaces showed phasic inspiratory activity but the onset of activity relative to inspiratory flow in the fourth and fifth spaces was delayed compared with that in cranial interspaces. Activity in the first, second and third interspaces commenced, on average, within the first 10% of inspiratory time, and sometimes preceded inspiratory airflow. In contrast, activity in the fourth and fifth interspaces began after an average 33% of inspiratory time. The peak inspiratory discharge frequency of motor units in the first interspace averaged 13.4 +/- 1.0 Hz (mean +/- s.e.m.) and was significantly greater than in all other interspaces, in particular in the fifth space (8.0 +/- 1.0 Hz). Phasic inspiratory activity was sometimes superimposed on tonic activity. In the first interspace, only 3% of units had tonic firing, but this proportion increased to 34% in the fifth space. In five subjects, recordings were also made from the medial and lateral extent of the second parasternal intercostal. Both portions showed phasic inspiratory activity which began within the first 6% of inspiratory time. Motor units from the lateral and medial portions fired at the same peak discharge rate (10.4 +/- 0.7 versus 10.7 +/- 0.6 Hz). These observations indicate that the distribution of neural drive to the parasternal intercostals in humans has a rostrocaudal gradient, but that the drive is uniform along the mediolateral extent of the second interspace. The distribution of inspiratory neural drive to the parasternal intercostals parallels the spatial distribution of inspiratory mechanical advantage, while tonic activity was higher where mechanical advantage was lower.