A method is described for depositing onto medical instruments highly biocompatible and bioactive surface coatings that can promote and stabilize cell attachment. The coatings were made by first depositing thin films of materials, such as diamond-like carbon, or metals, including tantalum, tungsten, platinum, gold, iridium, palladium, and brass. These surfaces were further altered to either promote or inhibit cell growth and spreading by an additional overcoat of biological materials, including the extracellular matrix proteins, laminin, fibronectin, and collagen IV. The deposition technique used a metal or carbon plasma, and the important properties of film adhesion, hardness, density, and smoothness are tailored by control of the ion bombardment energy. The films are translucent enough to permit high resolution light microscopy for rapid and detailed examination of tissue response. These bioactive substrates have been tested on primary central nervous system neurons, and the growth response is excellent. Equally successful have been our attempts to anchor neurons, without associated proliferation of non-neuronal cells, using coatings of poly-d-lysine. The method and the materials could have important ramifications in a number of areas of research and biotechnology, for example for chronic implantation of microelectrode arrays in the cerebral cortex for neuroprosthetic and neural monitoring application and for research on the human central nervous system. Possible application in nonneuronal fields, such as for coronary artery stents and pacemaker electrodes, also are discussed.