Sensory stimuli to the body are conveyed by the spinal cord to the primary somatosensory cortex. It has long been thought that dorsal column afferents of the spinal cord represent the main pathway for these signals, but the physiological and behavioural consequences of cutting the dorsal column have been reported to range from mild and transitory to marked. We have re-examined this issue by sectioning the dorsal columns in the cervical region and recording the responses to hand stimulation in the contralateral primary somatosensory cortex (area 3b). Following a complete section of the dorsal columns, neurons in area 3b become immediately and perhaps permanently unresponsive to hand stimulation. Following a partial section, the remaining dorsal column afferents continue to activate neurons within their normal cortical target territories, but after five or more weeks the area of activation is greatly expanded. After prolonged recovery periods of six months or more, the deprived hand territory becomes responsive to inputs from the face (which are unaffected by spinal cord section). Thus, area 3b of somatosensory cortex is highly dependent on dorsal spinal column inputs, and other spinal pathways do not substitute for the dorsal columns even after injury.