Want to understand chronic pain? There’s an app for that.

Developed by researchers at the Carney Institute for Brain Science, the SOMA app will enable clinicians to improve treatment options for patients.

More than 116 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain, and half of them are partially or totally disabled by it. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about what happens in the brain during the transition from acute to chronic pain. 

A new mobile application, developed by researchers at Brown University’s Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science, is here to untangle the mystery.

The app is called SOMA, and it is designed to directly support individuals with chronic pain while also gathering the data that will help researchers better predict which patients’ pain will become chronic. The name stems from the Greek word for “body, entire person,” signifying that the app takes a holistic approach to pain. SOMA allows users to track their pain, treatment, and activities—including which efforts affect their pain in positive or negative ways. The app is now available through both Apple's App Store and Google Play.

“When you injure your foot, there are sensors in your body that signal to the brain that there’s potential tissue damage. And that’s when you start to experience pain,” says Frederike Petzschner, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and research lead on the project. “The pain is happening at the level of the brain, not in the body. The problem is when pain becomes chronic, persisting well after the tissue has already healed.”

Petzschner and her team combine measurements of brain activity with behavioral assessments through the app to better understand how different parts of the brain control the initial signaling and the long-term maintenance of pain and the mechanisms of the transition from one to the other. With more detailed information about this process, clinicians will be able to offer treatment options that target the root cause of chronic pain.

In brain science, there is no way to not be interdisciplinary. I think we need more institutions like the Carney Institute that are trying to combine clinical work with computational work. This is definitely where neuroscience is heading.

Frederike Petzschner SOMA project lead
Frederike Petzschner, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and SOMA project lead

Putting discovery to work for patients

Frederike Petzschner came to Brown in 2020 expressly for the opportunity to co-direct and participate in the Carney Institute’s BRAINSTORM program

BRAINSTORM, an initiative within Carney’s Center for Computational Brain Science that was jump-started with more than $5 million in gifts through the BrownTogether campaign, aims to address the chasm between academia and industry where computational modeling and machine learning techniques could lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

“This is a unique opportunity that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world,” says Petzschner. “If you are someone who is application-oriented like me, there are very few opportunities to try to bring something to the patients directly.”

Petzschner and BRAINSTORM co-director Michael Frank work to support multiple research fellows within the program, who take advantage of a strong academic infrastructure for new discovery and additional types of support typical for industrial settings. This includes seed funding, access to professional software engineers, shared research facilities, professional project management, business skill development, and support to build spinoff companies.

The goal is to accelerate early-stage projects that have the potential for translation and broader impact on patient care. In addition to the SOMA app, BRAINSTORM fellows are working on projects related to artificial intelligence, transcranial magnetic stimulation for patients with depression, and strategies for addressing Alzheimer’s disease.

Collaboration is key

BRAINSTORM’s position within the Carney Institute and Brown’s larger research ecosystem has opened the door to partnerships that can rapidly advance the work.

For the creation of the SOMA app, Petzschner and her team worked closely with software developers from Brown’s Center for Computation and Visualization and designers from Brown’s School of Engineering and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In their research, they collaborate with Brown’s affiliated hospitals in Providence and local clinicians.

“This has been a very interdisciplinary project,” says Petzschner. “It feels like running a research laboratory and a start-up business at the same time.”

But, an essential piece of the development puzzle has been working with patient interest groups. 

“I really cared about making it accessible to patients right away,” she says. “If you are trying to build something with the patient in mind, you have to involve them from the beginning.”

In addition to the pain tracking functionality that SOMA offers to patients, researchers are also working on a mind-body pain intervention that can be delivered through the app and will be tested in a clinical trial. 

Importantly, the team also built a research platform around the app, called SOMAScience, that makes it easy for scientists around the world to acquire multidimensional and longitudinal pain data that enables them to propel new ideas about pain treatment and management forward.

“In brain science, there is no way to not be interdisciplinary,” says Petzschner. “I think we need more institutions like the Carney Institute that are trying to combine clinical work with computational work. This is definitely where neuroscience is heading.”

Fuel discoveries that benefit humanity.

Help the Carney Institute for Brain Science find treatments and therapies for some of the world’s most devastating conditions.