Spinal marginal zone (MZ) neurons play a crucial role in the transmission of nociceptive and thermoreceptive information to the brain. The precise areas to which physiologically characterized MZ neurons project in the ventral posterior lateral (VPL) nucleus of the thalamus have not been clearly established. Here, we examine this projection in rats using the method of antidromic activation to map the axon terminals of neurons recorded from the MZ. Thirty-three neurons were antidromically activated using pulses of < or =30 microA in the contralateral VPL. In every case, the most rostral point from which the MZ neuron could be antidromically activated was surrounded by stimulating tracks in which large-amplitude current pulses failed to activate the examined neuron, indicating the termination of the spinothalamic tract (STT) axon. Each of 30 examined neurons responded to noxious but not innocuous mechanical stimuli applied to their cutaneous receptive fields, which ranged in size from two digits to the entire limb. Of 17 thermally tested neurons, 16 responded to innocuous or noxious thermal stimuli. Among STT neurons that responded to thermal stimuli, 50% responded to innocuous cooling as well as noxious heat and cold, 31% responded to noxious heat and cold, and 19% responded only to noxious heat. Axons from cells responsive to innocuous cooling terminated in the core region of VPL, significantly dorsal and medial relative to other thermally responsive subgroups. In rats, thermally responsive subgroups of MZ neurons project directly to distinct regions of VPL.