Distinct neuronal cell types acquire and maintain their identity by expressing different genes. Recently it has become feasible to measure this cell type specific expression by isolating and amplifying mRNA from small populations of fluorescently labeled neurons and probing this mRNA with microarrays. Prior to this, most neuronal gene expression studies used tissue homogenates or randomly selected single cells and were, therefore, not well suited to studying transcriptional differences between cell types. Microarray studies of purified cell types have enabled investigators to identify the transcriptional signatures of, for example, subtypes of pyramidal neurons and interneurons in the neocortex, modulatory dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons, and the striatal neurons that form the so-called 'direct' and 'indirect' pathways through the basal ganglia. These studies are opening up new approaches to understanding brain circuitry, plasticity and pathology and are refining the concept of the neuronal cell type.