The primary goals of this study were to (1) examine the distribution of locus coeruleus (LC) neurons, which project to cortical and subcortical sites along the trigeminal somatosensory pathway in rats, and (2) determine the extent to which different regions within this ascending sensory system receive collateral projections from the same LC neuron. Long-Evans hooded rats received unilateral pressure injections of different combinations of retrograde fluorescent tracers into whisker-related regions of primary (SI) and secondary (SII) somatosensory cortices, the ventrobasal (VB) and posterior group (POm) nuclei of the thalamus, and the principalis nucleus of the trigeminal complex (PrV). Coronal sections (40-100 microm) through the LC were examined by fluorescence microscopy, and the distribution of retrogradely labeled cells was recorded. The major finding was that whisker-related regions of the cortex receive efferent projections from neurons concentrated in the caudal portion of the ipsilateral LC, whereas subcortical trigeminal somatosensory structures receive bilateral input from both LC nuclei. Despite the bilateral nature of the LC projection to subcortical sites, the majority of LC efferents to VB and POm thalamus originate in the ipsilateral LC nucleus, whereas projections to PrV originate primarily from the contralateral LC. An additional finding was that a relatively large proportion of LC cells, which project to a single somatosensory structure, also send axon collaterals to other relay sites along the same ascending somatosensory pathway. Taken together, these results suggest that the LC-noradrenergic system maintains a more selective relationship with functionally related efferent targets than has been previously appreciated.