The use of expression profiling with microarrays offers great potential for studying the mechanisms of action of drugs of abuse. Studies with the intact nervous system seem likely to be most relevant to understanding the mechanisms of drug abuse-related behaviours. However, the use of expression profiling with in vitro culture models offers significant advantages for identifying details of cellular signalling actions and toxicity for drugs of abuse. This study discusses general issues of the use of microarrays and cell culture models for studies on drugs of abuse. Specific results from existing studies are also discussed, providing clear examples of relevance for in vitro studies on ethanol, nicotine, opiates, cannabinoids and hallucinogens such as LSD. In addition to providing details on signalling mechanisms relevant to the neurobiology of drugs of abuse, microarray studies on a variety of cell culture systems have also provided important information on mechanisms of cellular/organ toxicity with drugs of abuse. Efforts to integrate genomic studies on drugs of abuse with both in vivo and in vitro models offer the potential for novel mechanistic rigor and physiological relevance.