The thalamus provides fundamental input to the neocortex. This input activates inhibitory interneurons more strongly than excitatory neurons, triggering powerful feedforward inhibition. We studied the mechanisms of this selective neuronal activation using a mouse somatosensory thalamocortical preparation. Notably, the greater responsiveness of inhibitory interneurons was not caused by their distinctive intrinsic properties but was instead produced by synaptic mechanisms. Axons from the thalamus made stronger and more frequent excitatory connections onto inhibitory interneurons than onto excitatory cells. Furthermore, circuit dynamics allowed feedforward inhibition to suppress responses in excitatory cells more effectively than in interneurons. Thalamocortical excitatory currents rose quickly in interneurons, allowing them to fire action potentials before significant feedforward inhibition emerged. In contrast, thalamocortical excitatory currents rose slowly in excitatory cells, overlapping with feedforward inhibitory currents that suppress action potentials. These results demonstrate the importance of selective synaptic targeting and precise timing in the initial stages of neocortical processing. © 2007 Nature Publishing Group.