A survey was made of neurons located in the ventral posterior lateral nucleus of the cat thalamus and its immediate vicinity for elements with specifically nociceptive properties. Pipette microelectrodes filled with a dye solution were used to obtain extracellular recordings of unitary activity in 34 animals anesthetized with chloralose. The great majority of the over 1,000 different single units responding to sciatic nerve stimulation noted in this series of experiments could also be excited by innocuous mechanical stimulation of skin or subcutaneous tissues. An infrequent but consistently noted group of units excited by A-αβδ sciatic nerve volleys did not respond to innocuous mechanical manipulation of A-αβ sciatic nerve volleys; they were excited only by either noxious levels of mechanical stimulation or when volleys included the activity of more slowly conducting myelinated fibers. The latencies of such 'high-threshold' units to sciatic volleys were longer than those of the other units. Histologically identified recording sites marked by dye were recovered for 17 high-threshold units. Twelve of the 17 could be excited by noxious manipulations of restricted parts of the contralateral hindlimb. Nine of the 12 had cutaneous receptive fields, whereas 3 responded only to stimulation of subcutaneous tissues. None of the 17 high-threshold units evidenced additional discharges that could be correlated with the C-fiber component of sciatic nerve volleys. The high-threshold units typically exhibited a low level of irregular background activity, which increased on repeated noxious stimulation of the peripheral receptive fields. Tactile units of the same or adjacent penetrations usually had a much greater degree of ongoing activity, often marked by bursts of a relatively high frequency. The recording sites for the 17 high-threshold neurons were located dorsal and ventrolateral to the core of the ventrobasal nuclei and were not found in the midst of the low-threshold, cutaneous, mechanoreceptive population. During vertical stereotaxic penetrations, high-threshold units were noted dorsal or ventral to the location of ventrobasal tactile units in a pattern consistent with the core's somatotopic arrangement. These results support the concept that the cat ventrolateral thalamus receives a small but distinct selectively nociceptive projection. The nociceptive neurons appear to be located in a shell that surrounds the main tactile projection to the ventral posterior lateral nucleus and that retains at least part of the topographic arrangement characteristic of the tactile core. Presumably, this projection is part of an organization identifying and localizing noxious stimulation.