Neural field models: a mathematical overview and unifying framework

Blake Cook, Andre Peterson, Wessel Woldman, John Terry

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Mathematical modelling of the macroscopic electrical activity of the brain is highly non-trivial and requires a detailed understanding of not only the associated mathematical techniques, but also the underlying physiology and anatomy. Neural field theory is a population-level approach to modelling the non-linear dynamics of large populations of neurons, while maintaining a degree of mathematical tractability. This class of models provides a solid theoretical perspective on fundamental processes of neural tissue such as state transitions between different brain activities as observed during epilepsy or sleep. Various anatomical, physiological, and mathematical assumptions are essential for deriving a minimal set of equations that strike a balance between biophysical realism and mathematical tractability. However, these assumptions are not always made explicit throughout the literature. Even though neural field models (NFMs) first appeared in the literature in the early 1970's, the relationships between them have not been systematically addressed. This may partially be explained by the fact that the inter-dependencies between these models are often implicit and non-trivial. Herein we provide a review of key stages of the history and development of neural field theory and contemporary uses of this branch of mathematical neuroscience. First, the principles of the theory are summarised throughout a discussion of the pioneering models by Wilson and Cowan, Amari and Nunez. Upon thorough review of these models, we then present a unified mathematical framework in which all neural field models can be derived by applying different assumptions. We then use this framework to i) derive contemporary models by Robinson, Jansen and Rit, Wendling, Liley, and Steyn-Ross, and ii) make explicit the many significant inherited assumptions that exist in the current literature.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2
Number of pages67
JournalMathematical Neuroscience and Applications
Publication statusPublished - 19 Mar 2022


  • Neural field theory
  • neural mass models
  • dynamical systems
  • neuroscience
  • mathematical modelling
  • brain state transitions
  • phenomenological models
  • brain dynamics
  • stochastic field theory
  • brain networks


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