Two years ago we published a Cerebrum article, “The Brain Games Conundrum: Does Cognitive Training Really Sharpen the Mind?” Complicating the issue for our co-authors, Walter R. Boot and Arthur F. Kramer—both neuroscientists who had spent years studying cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and aging—were two open letters to the neuroscience community from more than one-hundred scientists, one objecting to effectiveness claims made by brain-game companies and the other a rebuttal saying brain training has a solid scientific base.
Near the end of a Q&A with Boot and Kramer following the article’s publication, Boot predicted that “maybe in ten years we might know enough to make more definitive recommendations.”
Boot’s prediction was reaffirmed earlier this week with the publishing of a comprehensive evaluation of the scientific literature on brain games in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Seven scientists, including Boot, reviewed more than 130 studies of brain games and other forms of cognitive training. The evaluation included studies of products from industry giant Lumosity.
The conclusion: half of the brain training companies that promoted products as scientifically valid failed to cite peer-reviewed journal articles, relying instead on testimonials from scientists (including the company founders). Of the companies that did cite evidence for brain training, many cited general research on neuroplasticity, but nothing directly relevant to the effectiveness of the products they promote.
“We reviewed best-practice standards for intervention research and then evaluated the quality of the methods and the strength of evidence for every paper cited by brain training proponents (at cognitivetrainingdata.org) or by leading company websites,” Boot wrote in an email. “We conclude with a set of concrete guidelines and recommendations for researchers, consumers, and policy makers that we hope will help the public, policy makers, journalists, reviewers, and editors better evaluate current evidence. Ideally, these recommendations will lead to better intervention studies in the future.”
The brain training industry is facing scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In January, the company behind Lumosity agreed to pay a $2 million fine to settle FTC charges that it made unfounded claims about its brain training program. And in May, a smaller brain training company called LearningRx agreed to pay a $200,000 fine to settle similar charges. Even so, the LearningRx website still promises ‘A better brain at any age.’
At the time of the Cerebrum article, Kramer talked optimistically about Project EVO, brain-game software designed by Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCSF who won the Dana-sponsored Society for Neuroscience Science Educator Award in 2015. Nature magazine’s cover declared “Game Changer” when findings were published in 2013. The Boston company that is developing the software, Akili, which Gazzaley co-founded and advises, is conducting a clinical trial and is seeking Food and Drug Administration approval.
– Bill Glovin