Microelectrode arrays (MEAs) have been in use over the past decade and a half to study multiple aspects of electrically excitable cells. In particular, MEAs have been applied to explore the pharmacological and toxicological effects of numerous compounds on spontaneous activity of neuronal and cardiac cell networks. The MEA system enables simultaneous extracellular recordings from multiple sites in the network in real time, increasing spatial resolution and thereby providing a robust measure of network activity. The simultaneous gathering of action potential and field potential data over long periods of time allows the monitoring of network functions that arise from the interaction of all cellular mechanisms responsible for spatio-temporal pattern generation. In these functional, dynamic systems, physical, chemical, and pharmacological perturbations are holistically reflected by the tissue responses. Such features make MEA technology well suited for the screening of compounds of interest, and also allow scaling to high throughput systems that can record from multiple, separate cell networks simultaneously in multi-well chips or plates. This article is designed to be useful to newcomers to this technology as well as those who are currently using MEAs in their research. It explains how MEA systems operate, summarizes what systems are available, and provides a discussion of emerging mathematical schemes that can be used for a rapid classification of drug or chemical effects. Current efforts that will expand this technology to an influential, high throughput, electrophysiological approach for reliable determinations of compound toxicity are also described and a comprehensive review of toxicological publications using MEAs is provided as an appendix to this publication. Overall, this article highlights the benefits and promise of MEA technology as a high throughput, rapid screening method for toxicity testing.
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