BACKGROUND:Microarray technology is a powerful methodology for identifying differentially expressed genes. However, when thousands of genes in a microarray data set are evaluated simultaneously by fold changes and significance tests, the probability of detecting false positives rises sharply. In this first microarray study of brachial plexus injury, we applied and compared the performance of two recently proposed algorithms for tackling this multiple testing problem, Significance Analysis of Microarrays (SAM) and Westfall and Young step down adjusted p values, as well as t-statistics and Welch statistics, in specifying differential gene expression under different biological states. RESULTS:Using SAM based on t statistics, we identified 73 significant genes, which fall into different functional categories, such as cytokines / neurotrophin, myelin function and signal transduction. Interestingly, all but one gene were down-regulated in the patients. Using Welch statistics in conjunction with SAM, we identified an additional set of up-regulated genes, several of which are engaged in transcription and translation regulation. In contrast, the Westfall and Young algorithm identified only one gene using a conventional significance level of 0.05. CONCLUSION:In coping with multiple testing problems, Family-wise type I error rate (FWER) and false discovery rate (FDR) are different expressions of Type I error rates. The Westfall and Young algorithm controls FWER. In the context of this microarray study, it is, seemingly, too conservative. In contrast, SAM, by controlling FDR, provides a promising alternative. In this instance, genes selected by SAM were shown to be biologically meaningful.