SENSORY systems are often required to detect a small amplitude signal embedded in broadband background noise. Traditionally, ambient noise is regarded as detrimental to encoding accuracy. Recently, however, a phenomenon known as stochastic resonance has been described in which, for systems with a nonlinear threshold, increasing the input noise level can actually improve the output signal-to-noise ratio over a limited range of signal and noise strengths. Previous theoretical and experimental studies of stochastic resonance in physical1-7and biological6-10 systems have dealt exclusively with single-frequency sine stimuli embedded in a broadband noise background. In the past year it has been shown in a theoretical and modelling study that stochastic resonance can be observed with broadband signals11,12. Here we demonstrate that broadband stochastic resonance is manifest in the peripheral layers of neural processing in a simple sensory system, and that it plays a role over a wide range of biologically relevant stimulus parameters. Further, we quantify the functional significance of the phenomenon within the context of signal processing, using information theory.