BACKGROUND: Adhesion dependent mechanisms are increasingly recognized to be important for a wide range of biological processes, diseases and therapeutics. This has led to a rising demand of pharmaceutical modulators. However, most currently available adhesion assays are time consuming and/or lack sensitivity and reproducibility or depend on specialized and expensive equipment often only available at screening facilities. Thus, rapid and economical high-content screening approaches are urgently needed. RESULTS: We established a fully open source high-content screening method for identifying modulators of adhesion. We successfully used this method to detect small molecules that are able to influence cell adhesion and cell spreading of Swiss-3T3 fibroblasts in general and/or specifically counteract Nogo-A-Δ20-induced inhibition of adhesion and cell spreading. The tricyclic anti-depressant clomipramine hydrochloride was shown to not only inhibit Nogo-A-Δ20-induced cell spreading inhibition in 3T3 fibroblasts but also to promote growth and counteract neurite outgrowth inhibition in highly purified primary neurons isolated from rat cerebellum. CONCLUSIONS: We have developed and validated a high content screening approach that can be used in any ordinarily equipped cell biology laboratory employing exclusively freely available open-source software in order to find novel modulators of adhesion and cell spreading. The versatility and adjustability of the whole screening method will enable not only centers specialized in high-throughput screens but most importantly also labs not routinely employing screens in their daily work routine to investigate the effects of a wide range of different compounds or siRNAs on adhesion and adhesion-modulating molecules.