Pyramidal cells of layer 6 in cat visual cortex are the source of the corticothalamic projection and their recurrent collaterals provide substantially more excitatory synapses in layer 4 than does the thalamic input. They have predominantly simple receptive fields and can be driven monosynaptically by electrically stimulating thalamic relay cells. Layer 6 cells could thus provide a significant disynaptic amplification of the thalamic input to layer 4, particularly since their synapses facilitate, unlike the thalamic afferents whose synapses depress. However, purely geometric considerations of the relation of their dendritic trees to the thalamic input indicate that they should form a far smaller number of synapses with thalamic afferents than do the simple cells of layer 4. We thus analysed quantitatively the thalamic input to identified corticothalamic cells by labeling the thalamic afferents and corticothalamic cells in vivo. We made a correlated light and electron microscopic study of 73 �contacts� between thalamic afferents and 5 corticothalamic cells. The electron microscope revealed that only 24 of the contacts identified at light microscope level were indeed synapses and, contrary to geometric predictions, virtually all were located on spines on the basal dendrites. Our quantitative estimates indicate that the corticothalamic cells form even fewer synapses with the thalamic afferents than predicted by geometric considerations and only a tenth as many as do the layer 4 simple cells. These data strongly suggest it is the collective computation of cortical neurons, not the monosynaptic thalamic input, that determines the output of the corticothalamic cells.