Contribution of supragranular layers to sensory processing and plasticity in adult rat barrel cortex. J. Neurophysiol. 80: 3261-3271, 1998. In mature rat primary somatic sensory cortical area (SI) barrel field cortex, the thalamic-recipient granular layer IV neurons project especially densely to layers I, II, III, and IV. A prior study showed that cells in the supragranular layers are the fastest to change their response properties to novel changes in sensory inputs. Here we examine the effect of removing supragranular circuitry on the responsiveness and synaptic plasticity of cells in the remaining layers. To remove the layer II + III (supragranular) neurons from the circuitry of barrel field cortex, N-methyl--aspartate (NMDA) was applied to the exposed dura over the barrel cortex, which destroys those neurons by excitotoxicity without detectable damage to blood vessels or axons of passage. Fifteen days after NMDA treatment, the first responsive cells encountered were 400-430 micrometers below the pial surface. In separate cases triphenyltetrazolium chloride (TTC), a vital dye taken up by living cells, was absent from the lesion area. Cytochrome oxidase (CO) activity was absent in the first few tangential sections through the barrel field in all cases before arriving at the CO-dense barrel domains. These findings indicate that the lesions were quite consistent from animal to animal. Controls consisted of applying vehicle without NMDA under similar conditions. Responses of D2 barrel cells were assessed for spontaneous activity and level of response to stimulation of the principal D2 whisker and four surround whiskers D1, D3, C2, and E2. In two additional groups of animals treated in the same way, sensory plasticity was assessed by trimming all whiskers except D2 and either D1 or D3 (called Dpaired) for 7 days before recording cortical responses. Such whisker pairing normally potentiates D2 barrel cell responses to stimulation of the two intact whiskers (D2 + Dpaired). After NMDA lesions, cortical cells still responded to all whiskers tested. Cells in lesioned cortex showed reduced response amplitude compared with sham-operated controls to all D-row whiskers. In-arc surround whisker (C2 or E2) responses were normal. Spontaneous activity did not change significantly in any remaining layer at the time tested. Modal latencies to stimulation of principal D2 or surround D1 or D3 whiskers showed no significant change after lesioning. These findings indicate that there is a reasonable preservation of the response properties of layer IV, V, VI neurons after removal of layer II-III neurons in this way. Whisker pairing plasticity in layer IV-VI D2 barrel column neurons occurred in both lesioned and sham animals but was reduced significantly in lesioned animals compared with controls. The response bias generated by whisker trimming (Dpaired/Dcut + Dpaired ratio) was less pronounced in NMDA-lesioned than sham-lesioned animals. Proportionately fewer neurons in layer IV (52 vs. 64%) and in the infragranular layers (55 vs. 68%) exhibited a clear response bias to paired whiskers. We conclude that receptive-field plasticity can occur in layers IV-VI of barrel cortex in the absence of the supragranular layer circuitry. However, layer I-III circuitry does play a role in normal receptive-field generation and is required for the full expression of whisker pairing plasticity in granular and infragranular layer cells.