Brain Training – Lumosity guilty of bogus claims

WM-increaseLumosity, a San Francisco based company, has been promoting “Brain Training” that basically consists of games that are supposed to improve your memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing, and problem solving abilities.  It might indeed be popular and also quite profitable, but the ever so slight flaw is that they have been claiming stuff that is at best highly dubious, and is in all probability simply not true.

The latest news on all this is that the Federal Trade Commission has now agreed a settlement of $2 Million with them due to the FTC charges that they deceived consumers with unfounded claims …

“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

... in other words, when they got into the game of claiming a medical benefit – that it would prevent dementia or alzheimer’s – then they crossed a line as far as the FCA were concerned. It would have been fine if they could have produced robust independently verifiable evidence for such claims, and so the key with this is that they were unable to do so.

The complaint also charges the defendants with failing to disclose that some consumer testimonials featured on the website had been solicited through contests that promised significant prizes, including a free iPad, a lifetime Lumosity subscription, and a round-trip to San Francisco.

The proposed stipulated federal court order requires the company and the individual defendants, co-founder and former CEO Kunal Sarkar and co-founder and former Chief Scientific Officer Michael Scanlon, to have competent and reliable scientific evidence before making future claims about any benefits for real-world performance, age-related decline, or other health conditions.

The order also imposes a $50 million judgment against Lumos Labs, which will be suspended due to its financial condition after the company pays $2 million to the Commission. The order requires the company to notify subscribers who signed up for an auto-renewal plan between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2014 about the FTC action and to provide a means to cancel their subscription.

Is there any Evidence that Brain Training does anything?

Lumosity themselves claim that they have conducted research …

Our scientists had 4,715 participants complete the study. Half trained with Lumosity, while the rest did online crossword puzzles to control for placebo effects.

After 10 weeks, the Lumosity group improved more than the crosswords group on an aggregate assessment of cognition.

What exactly does that verify or confirm, what does “Improved” mean and how did they verify that?

There are no immediate and obvious links to any details for the above and I also can’t help but feel that it is all built upon a rather obvious conflict of interest here, but to be fair, they do also make a big deal about working with the scientific community, but the fact that they work with them is not what matters, it is the results.

So have there been independent studies?

Yes, for example you can read about a UK based one here …

A panel of experts, including eminent neuroscientists, found there was no scientific evidence to support a range of manufacturers’ claims that the gadgets can help improve memory or stave off the risk of illnesses such as dementia.

Which? asked a panel of scientific experts to examine gadgets and their claims. They included Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, Mindfit and Lumosity.

Martyn Hocking, editor of Which?, said: “If people enjoy using these games, then they should continue to do so – that’s a no-brainer. But if people are under the illusion that these devices are scientifically proven to keep their minds in shape, they need to think again.”

Meanwhile over in the US, Z-Net has an interesting article that also gives it all a thumbs down on the basis of feedback from researchers …

The desire to improve our cognitive ability through brain-training games has turned into what is said to be a trillion-dollar industry. Such games are based on the idea that testing our memory, attention and other types of brain processing will improve our overall intelligence and brain function.

Companies like Lumosity, Cogmed and Nintendo are all cashing in hugely on this idea. But many scientists and experts in brain research feel the theory has serious flaws. There has yet to be concrete evidence proving anything close to what such companies claim to be able to do.

… or how about something a tad more formal, an actual paper from a peer-reviewed journal …

Despite improvements on both the dual n-back and visual search tasks with practice, and despite a high level of statistical power, there was no positive transfer to any of the cognitive ability tests.

So basically, it would be nice if playing computer games resulted in improvements that impacted your daily life in a really meaningful way, but so far I’m not finding any solid evidence for such claims, and neither are the independent researchers.

Further Thoughts

We have been here before, for example …

… and so it all sends a rather clear message, namely, if you are going to promote products that you claim will do wonderful magical things, then you better be prepared to backup you claim with some real evidence.

Bottom line: Keep playing if it is fun and helps you to relax and de-stress, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that getting better at the games will translate into general improvement in day-to-day cerebral functioning.

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