Experiments were done to determine the form of the input-output relation (i.e. stimulus intensity vs response amplitude) of the corticospinal pathway of the first dorsal interosseous and the tibialis anterior, respectively. Our purpose was to determine from these quantitative relations which input-output parameters would be useful measures in studies dealing with motor cortical task dependence. The motor cortex was excited by focal transcranial magnetic stimuli and the evoked motor response were recorded with surface electromyographic electrodes. In some experiments the discharge probability of single motor units in response to magnetic stimuli of increasing intensity was determined from intramuscular recordings. For both muscles the form of the input-output relation was sigmoidal. The steepness of the relation increased, up to 4-7 times the value at rest, with increasing tonic background activity. The threshold decreased, but only slightly, with increasing tonic background activity. The minimum value of the threshold was reached at activation levels of about 10-20% of the maximum tonic effort, whereas the steepness of the relation reached its maximum at higher activation levels, typically about 30-40% of the maximum tonic effort. These observations imply that these two input-output parameters of the corticospinal pathway - one reflecting the bias level (threshold) and the other the gain (slope) - are determined by different neural mechanisms. The plateau level of the sigmoidal input-output relation was not influenced by the background activation level, except that in some subjects (4/9) it could not be reached when no background motor activity was present. This was probably due, for the most part, to limitation of the maximum stimulator output. Additionally, this finding may reflect a change in the intrinsic excitability of the motor cortex in going from rest to activity, or that convergent inputs from different descending and afferent systems are required for maximal activation of motoneuron pools. Thus, the threshold, steepness and plateau level characterize the input-output parameters of the human corticospinal pathway for a given level of motor activity. In contrast to the nonlinear input-output relation of the corticospinal pathway as whole, which includes the motoneuron pool and any spinal interneuronal relays, the discharge probability of all single motor units was a linearly increasing function of the stimulus strength (r> or =0.9, P<0.01). Thus, the sigmoidal input-output relation of the corticospinal pathway, as a whole, is not due to the input-output properties of single motoneurons. The possible neural mechanisms which underlie the shape and parameters of the input-output relation as well as the methodological implications of the results are considered.