In the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of the thalamus, visual stimulation produces two distinct types of responses known as tonic and burst. Due to the dynamics of the T-type Ca(2+) channels involved in burst generation, the type of response evoked by a particular stimulus depends on the resting membrane potential, which is controlled by a network of modulatory connections from other brain areas. In this study, we use simulated responses to natural scene movies to describe how modulatory and stimulus-driven changes in LGN membrane potential interact to determine the luminance sequences that trigger burst responses. We find that at low resting potentials, when the T channels are de-inactivated and bursts are relatively frequent, an excitatory stimulus transient alone is sufficient to evoke a burst. However, to evoke a burst at high resting potentials, when the T channels are inactivated and bursts are relatively rare, prolonged inhibitory stimulation followed by an excitatory transient is required. We also observe evidence of these effects in vivo, where analysis of experimental recordings demonstrates that the luminance sequences that trigger bursts can vary dramatically with the overall burst percentage of the response. To characterize the functional consequences of the effects of resting potential on burst generation, we simulate LGN responses to different luminance sequences at a range of resting potentials with and without a mechanism for generating bursts. Using analysis based on signal detection theory, we show that bursts enhance detection of specific luminance sequences, ranging from the onset of excitatory sequences at low resting potentials to the offset of inhibitory sequences at high resting potentials. These results suggest a dynamic role for burst responses during visual processing that may change according to behavioral state.