When we published the Cerebrum article, “The Brain Games Conundrum: Does Cognitive Function Really Sharpen the Mind?”, and a follow-up Q&A with the authors in November 2014, three aspects of the article were crystal clear: I) Few topics in neuroscience evoke as much debate as brain game effectiveness. 2) Advertising has convinced tens of thousands of people to open their wallets and buy products. 3) The science surrounding the benefits of brain games is sketchy at best.
The article was in direct contrast to website claims by Lumosity, a major player in the brain-game business, with more than $1 billion a year in revenues and 60-million members. At the time, Lumosity’s website boasted of nine peer-reviewed studies, 36 university collaborators, and testimonials galore.
Now, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTA):
The creators and marketers of the Lumosity ‘brain training’ program have agreed to settle FTA charges alleging that they deceived consumers with unfounded claims that Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.
As part of the settlement, Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity, will pay $2 million in redress and will notify subscribers of the FTC action and provide them with an easy way to cancel their auto-renewal to avoid future billing.
The original fine, $50 million, was reduced when financial auditors determined that the company would be unable to pay it.
Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
In talking about website claims by brain-game companies such as Lumosity, Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology at the University of Illinois, and a co-author of the Cerebrum article, said in our Q&A:
Some of the research is not specifically for products sold on the website. The studies may be based on relevant and related research, but as we know in our field, there are more than a few failures to replicate studies [a subject of a more recent Cerebrum article, “Failure to Replicate: Sound the Alarm”] that have done before. Another problem is that there is seldom a comparison between products, so there is no way for a consumer to know which is the best choice for them.
The FTC’s complaint points out that “the Lumosity program consists of 40 games purportedly designed to target and train specific areas of the brain. The company advertised that training on these games for 10 to 15 minutes three or four times a week could help users achieve their ‘full potential in every aspect of life.’ The company sold both online and mobile app subscriptions, with options ranging from monthly ($14.95) to lifetime ($299.95) memberships.”
The complaint also noted that Lumosity is a mainstream advertiser on some of the country’s best-known outlets. But the company also marketed through emails, blog posts, social media, and on their website, Lumosity.com, and used Google AdWords to drive traffic to their website, purchasing hundreds of keywords related to memory, cognition, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite the fine and the harsh criticism of Lumosity, the Cerebrum authors aren’t convinced that brain games have no future. Their message is that “we just don’t know whether they work yet or not.” Walter Boot, Ph.D., an associate professor at Florida State University explained:
Maybe in 10 years we might know enough to make more definitive recommendations. There are a number of exciting things going on right now in psychological science in terms of an increased focus on replication, pre-registration of studies, and better ways to measure and control for placebo effects and other important confounds in brain training studies. There is a movement for a return to methodological rigor and thinking about these issues. Because of this, we are already beginning to see studies with results that are easier to interpret, and I anticipate that this trend will continue.
– Bill Glovin