Electrophysiology is the branch of physiology that studies the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues. It involves measurements of voltage changes or electric current or manipulations on a wide variety of scales from single ion channel proteins to whole organs like the heart. In neuroscience, it includes measurements of the electrical activity of neurons, and, in particular, action potential activity. Recordings of large-scale electric signals from the nervous system, such as electroencephalography, may also be referred to as electrophysiological recordings. They are useful for electrodiagnosis and monitoring.

If an electrode is small enough (micrometers) in diameter, then the electrophysiologist may choose to insert the tip into a single cell. Such a configuration allows direct observation and recording of the intracellular electrical activity of a single cell. However, this invasive setup reduces the life of the cell and causes a leak of substances across the cell membrane. Intracellular activity may also be observed using a specially formed (hollow) glass pipette containing an electrolyte. In this technique, the microscopic pipette tip is pressed against the cell membrane, to which it tightly adheres by an interaction between glass and lipids of the cell membrane. The electrolyte within the pipette may be brought into fluid continuity with the cytoplasm by delivering a pulse of negative pressure to the pipette in order to rupture the small patch of membrane encircled by the pipette rim (whole-cell recording). Alternatively, ionic continuity may be established by "perforating" the patch by allowing exogenous pore-forming agent within the electrolyte to insert themselves into the membrane patch (perforated patch recording). Finally, the patch may be left intact (patch recording).

As electrode size increases, the resolving power decreases. Larger electrodes are sensitive only to the net activity of many cells, termed local field potentials. Still larger electrodes, such as uninsulated needles and surface electrodes used by clinical and surgical neurophysiologists, are sensitive only to certain types of synchronous activity within populations of cells numbering in the millions.

Optical electrophysiological techniques were created by scientists and engineers to overcome one of the main limitations of classical techniques. Classical techniques allow observation of electrical activity at approximately a single point within a volume of tissue. Essentially, classical techniques singularize a distributed phenomenon. Interest in the spatial distribution of bioelectric activity prompted development of molecules capable of emitting light in response to their electrical or chemical environment. Examples are voltage sensitive dyes and fluorescing proteins.

The voltage clamp technique allows an experimenter to "clamp" the cell potential at a chosen value. This makes it possible to measure how much ionic current crosses a cell's membrane at any given voltage. This is important because many of the ion channels in the membrane of a neuron are voltage-gated ion channels, which open only when the membrane voltage is within a certain range. Voltage clamp measurements of current are made possible by the near-simultaneous digital subtraction of transient capacitive currents that pass as the recording electrode and cell membrane are charged to alter the cell's potential.

This technique was developed by Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann who received the Nobel Prize in 1991. Conventional intracellular recording involves impaling a cell with a fine electrode; patch-clamp recording takes a different approach. A patch-clamp microelectrode is a micropipette with a relatively large tip diameter. The microelectrode is placed next to a cell, and gentle suction is applied through the microelectrode to draw a piece of the cell membrane (the 'patch') into the microelectrode tip; the glass tip forms a high resistance 'seal' with the cell membrane. This configuration is the "cell-attached" mode, and it can be used for studying the activity of the ion channels that are present in the patch of membrane. If more suction is now applied, the small patch of membrane in the electrode tip can be displaced, leaving the electrode sealed to the rest of the cell. This "whole-cell" mode allows very stable intracellular recording. A disadvantage (compared to conventional intracellular recording with sharp electrodes) is that the intracellular fluid of the cell mixes with the solution inside the recording electrode, and so some important components of the intracellular fluid can be diluted. A variant of this technique, the "perforated patch" technique, tries to minimise these problems. Instead of applying suction to displace the membrane patch from the electrode tip, it is also possible to make small holes on the patch with pore-forming agents so that large molecules such as proteins can stay inside the cell and ions can pass through the holes freely. Also the patch of membrane can be pulled away from the rest of the cell. This approach enables the membrane properties of the patch to be analysed pharmacologically.

With this electrophysiological approach, proteoliposomes, membrane vesicles, or membrane fragments containing the channel or transporter of interest are adsorbed to a lipid monolayer painted over a functionalized electrode. This electrode consists of a glass support, a chromium layer, a gold layer, and an octadecyl mercaptane monolayer. Because the painted membrane is supported by the electrode, it is called a solid-supported membrane. It is important to note that mechanical perturbations, which usually destroy a biological lipid membrane, do not influence the life-time of an SSM. The capacitive electrode (composed of the SSM and the absorbed vesicles) is so mechanically stable that solutions may be rapidly exchanged at its surface. This property allows the application of rapid substrate/ligand concentration jumps to investigate the electrogenic activity of the protein of interest, measured via capacitive coupling between the vesicles and the electrode.