Simultaneous recordings from the soma and apical dendrite of layer V neocortical pyramidal cells of young rats show that, for any location of current input, an evoked action potential (AP) always starts at the axon and then propagates actively, but decrementally, backward into the dendrites. This back-propagating AP is supported by a low density (-gNa = approximately 4 mS/cm2) of rapidly inactivating voltage-dependent Na+ channels in the soma and the apical dendrite. Investigation of detailed, biophysically constrained, models of reconstructed pyramidal cells shows the following. (i) The initiation of the AP first in the axon cannot be explained solely by morphological considerations; the axon must be more excitable than the soma and dendrites. (ii) The minimal Na+ channel density in the axon that fully accounts for the experimental results is about 20-times that of the soma. If -gNa in the axon hillock and initial segment is the same as in the soma [as recently suggested by Colbert and Johnston [Colbert, C. M. & Johnston, D. (1995) Soc. Neurosci. Abstr. 21, 684.2]], then -gNa in the more distal axonal regions is required to be about 40-times that of the soma. (iii) A backward propagating AP in weakly excitable dendrites can be modulated in a graded manner by background synaptic activity. The functional role of weakly excitable dendrites and a more excitable axon for forward synaptic integration and for backward, global, communication between the axon and the dendrites is discussed.