Neocortex network activity changes from a deactivated state during quiescence to an activated state during arousal and vigilance. In urethane-anesthetized rats, cortical activation is readily produced by either stimulating the brainstem reticular formation or by application of cholinergic agonists into the thalamus. We studied the effects of cortical activation on spontaneous activity and sensory responses in the barrel cortex. Cortical activation leads to a suppression of low-frequency sensory responses and to a reduction in their variability due to the abolishment of up and down membrane potential fluctuations in cortical cells. Overall, sensory responses become sharper and more reliable during cortical activation.