Sensory processing, sensorimotor integration and motor control are amongst the most basic functions of the brain and yet our understanding of how the underlying neuronal networks operate and contribute to behaviour is very limited. The relative simplicity of the mouse whisker sensorimotor system is helpful for detailed quantitative analyses of motor control and perception during active sensory processing. Recent technical advances now allow the measurement of membrane potential in awake-behaving mice, using whole-cell recordings and voltage-sensitive dye imaging. With these recording techniques, it is possible to directly correlate neuronal activity with behaviour. However, in order to obtain causal evidence for the specific contributions of different neuronal networks to behaviour, it is critical to manipulate the system in a highly controlled manner. Advances in molecular neurobiology, gene delivery and mouse genetics provide techniques capable of layer, column and cell-type specific control of gene expression in the mouse neocortex. Over the next years, we anticipate considerable advances in our understanding of brain function through measuring and manipulating neuronal activity with unprecedented precision to probe the molecular and synaptic mechanisms underlying simple forms of active sensory perception and associative learning.