Brains in Pain – Apps to the Rescue?

It’s a simplification to argue that technology removes us from the concerns of the physical world. Many technological applications are geared specifically to orient us in the world, and none bring us more clearly full circle back to ourselves than mobile apps which focus on our physical and mental health.

One of the lesser known – but vitally helpful – types of apps is the emerging range of technological aids for living with health conditions associated with great physical pain. Such apps can also be incredibly useful for pain specialists, who can use them to monitor highly detailed reports on patients’ pain thresholds, mood, physical activity levels and more.

Harvard PhD and Professor of anaesthesia and psychiatry, Robert Jamison, recently presented his research into smartphone apps for pain to the American Pain Society. His research found that existing therapies in this new domain could help control pain, improve the functional abilities of patients and also lower health care costs.

In those who feel isolated due to their pain or conditions, the apps can help to limit withdrawal, Jamison found. Smartphone data can also be summarized and converted directly into electronically kept patient notes.

Some currently available apps such as WebMD Pain Coach and MMP Lite focus on the tracking, analysing and communicating about pain. They offer data correlation and cloud storage facilities. There’s another interesting app, Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief, which offers a course of meditation programmes designed to actually lower pain perception.

A cutting-edge technological research project into pain relief is being conducted by entrepreneur Christopher deCharms, in collaboration with Stanford and Harvard Universities. In studies using $3 million MRI machines and virtual reality goggles, the team have been showing sufferers of chronic pain 3D models and representations of their own brains in real time in order to help them learn techniques for controlling their own brain states.

Based on this research, deCharms believes that it is possible to learn to activate various regions of the brain through such direct observation. The average improvement in clinical trials has been a 30% lowering of pain intensity: a huge result.

What’s even more amazing is that by modelling the best methods discovered for controlling one’s own brain regions in the MRI scanner, and building guided practices based on these, the researchers have achieved similar reductions in pain in users nowhere near the MRI scanner, but working from home on a smartphone, simply following the guided practices.

It is these (far more affordable!) models and guides which the project, known as Brainful, hopes to use to take the benefits to the mainstream. deCharms and collaborators have published several academic papers on their current findings, which make for compelling reading.

With both neuroscience, and the uniting of mind and brain studies still in their infancy, this technology has the potential to totally transform the medical norms we live with, and offer a real alternative to drug-based pain relief.


deCharms, R., Maeda, F., Glover, G., Ludlow, D., Pauly, J., Soneji, D., Gabrieli, J., & Mackey, S. (2005). Control over brain activation and pain learned by using real-time functional MRI Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (51), 18626-18631 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0505210102

Image via pcruciatti / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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