The development of the nervous system is an extremely complex and dynamic process. Through the continuous interplay of genetic information and changing intra- and extracellular environments, the nervous system constructs itself from precursor cells that divide and form neurons, which migrate, differentiate and establish synaptic connections. Our understanding of neural development can be greatly assisted by mathematical and computational modelling, because it allows us to bridge the gap between system-level dynamics and the lower level cellular and molecular processes. This Review shows the potential of theoretical models to examine many aspects of neural development. © 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.