Knowledge of thalamocortical (TC) processing comes mainly from studying core thalamic systems that project to middle layers of primary sensory cortices. However, most thalamic relay neurons comprise a matrix of cells that are densest in the "nonspecific" thalamic nuclei and usually target layer 1 (L1) of multiple cortical areas. A longstanding hypothesis is that matrix TC systems are crucial for regulating neocortical excitability during changing behavioral states, yet we know almost nothing about the mechanisms of such regulation. It is also unclear whether synaptic and circuit mechanisms that are well established for core sensory TC systems apply to matrix TC systems. Here we describe studies of thalamic matrix influences on mouse prefrontal cortex using optogenetic and in vitro electrophysiology techniques. Channelrhodopsin-2 was expressed in midline and paralaminar (matrix) thalamic neurons, and their L1-projecting TC axons were activated optically. Contrary to conventional views, we found that matrix TC projections to L1 could transmit relatively strong, fast, high-fidelity synaptic signals. L1 TC projections preferentially drove inhibitory interneurons of L1, especially those of the late-spiking subtype, and often triggered feedforward inhibition in both L1 interneurons and pyramidal cells of L2/L3. Responses during repetitive stimulation were far more sustained for matrix than for core sensory TC pathways. Thus, matrix TC circuits appear to be specialized for robust transmission over relatively extended periods, consistent with the sort of persistent activation observed during working memory and potentially applicable to state-dependent regulation of excitability.