INTRODUCTION: We investigated noninvasively areas of the healthy human spinal cord that become active in response to vibration stimulation of different dermatomes using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The objectives of this study were to: (1) examine the patterns of consistent activity in the spinal cord during vibration stimulation of the skin, and (2) investigate the rostrocaudal distribution of active pixels when stimulation was applied to different dermatomes. METHODS: FMRI of the cervical and lumbar spinal cord of seven healthy human subjects was carried out during vibration stimulation of six different dermatomes. In separate experiments, vibratory stimulation (about 50 Hz) was applied to the right biceps, wrist, palm, patella, Achilles tendon and left palm. RESULTS: The segmental distribution of activity observed by fMRI corresponded well with known spinal cord neuroanatomy. The peak number of active pixels was observed at the expected level of the spinal cord with some activity in the adjacent segments. The rostrocaudal distribution of activity was observed to correspond to the dermatome being stimulated. Cross-sectional localization of activity was primarily in dorsal areas but also spread into ventral and intermediate areas of the gray matter and a distinct laterality ipsilateral to the stimulated limb was not observed. CONCLUSION: We demonstrated that fMRI can detect a dermatome-dependent pattern of spinal cord activity during vibratory stimulation and can be used as a passive stimulus for the noninvasive assessment of the functional integrity of the human spinal cord. Demonstration of cross-sectional selectivity of the activation awaits further methodological and experimental refinements.