Understanding the dynamics of biological and neural oscillator networks through exact mean-field reductions: a review

Christian Bick*, Marc Goodfellow, Carlo R. Laing, Erik A. Martens

*Corresponding author for this work

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Many biological and neural systems can be seen as networks of interacting periodic processes. Importantly, their functionality, i.e., whether these networks can perform their function or not, depends on the emerging collective dynamics of the network. Synchrony of oscillations is one of the most prominent examples of such collective behavior and has been associated both with function and dysfunction. Understanding how network structure and interactions, as well as the microscopic properties of individual units, shape the emerging collective dynamics is critical to find factors that lead to malfunction. However, many biological systems such as the brain consist of a large number of dynamical units. Hence, their analysis has either relied on simplified heuristic models on a coarse scale, or the analysis comes at a huge computational cost. Here we review recently introduced approaches, known as the Ott–Antonsen and Watanabe–Strogatz reductions, allowing one to simplify the analysis by bridging small and large scales. Thus, reduced model equations are obtained that exactly describe the collective dynamics for each subpopulation in the oscillator network via few collective variables only. The resulting equations are next-generation models: Rather than being heuristic, they exactly link microscopic and macroscopic descriptions and therefore accurately capture microscopic properties of the underlying system. At the same time, they are sufficiently simple to analyze without great computational effort. In the last decade, these reduction methods have become instrumental in understanding how network structure and interactions shape the collective dynamics and the emergence of synchrony. We review this progress based on concrete examples and outline possible limitations. Finally, we discuss how linking the reduced models with experimental data can guide the way towards the development of new treatment approaches, for example, for neurological disease.

Original languageEnglish
Article number9
JournalJournal of Mathematical Neuroscience
Issue number1
Number of pages43
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


  • Coupled oscillators
  • Kuramoto model
  • Mean-field reductions
  • Network dynamics
  • Neural masses
  • Neural networks
  • Ott–Antonsen reduction
  • Quadratic integrate-and-fire neurons
  • Structured networks
  • Theta neuron model
  • Watanabe–Strogatz reduction
  • Winfree model


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