Brain-training software has become big business, pulling in billions in revenue despite limited evidence to date on how well it works. Now regulators are stepping in to rein in the advertising. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced January 5 that it had slapped brain-training company Lumos Labs with a $2 million fine for what it called “deceptive advertising” of its Lumosity software. According to the FTC, the marketing campaign implied that use of the software could ward off cognitive decline and dementia, without adequate data to back up these claims. As part of the settlement, Lumos Labs must inform customers of the FTC action and offer them an easy way to cancel software subscriptions. The ruling has received extensive media coverage (see, e.g., The Wall Street Journal and NBC News).
The FTC’s action follows other recent rulings curbing marketing claims by software manufacturers. In January 2015, the agency ordered Focus Education to stop claiming that its Jungle Rangers computer game improved memory, focus, and school performance in children, and in September it imposed a $150,000 fine on Carrot Neurotechnology, Inc., for claiming its software could improve vision.
The latest ruling met with broad approval from experts in the cognitive-training field, who seconded the need for stronger scientific evidence of software efficacy. “I hope these FTC findings will lead to more rigorous testing of the benefits of brain-training programs. Ideally, they also will motivate companies to limit their marketing claims to those directly supported by well-designed intervention studies,” Daniel Simons at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign wrote to Alzforum. Murali Doraiswamy at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, suggested that brain-training companies seek FDA clearance before marketing their products as cognitive enhancers. Doraiswamy has consulted for Lumos Labs on the design of validation studies as an unpaid advisor.
Marketing claims lay at the crux of the Lumosity decision. The FTC charged that Lumos Labs’ ads gave the impression its software could improve performance in school, athletics, and on the job, delay age-related decline and dementia, and ameliorate cognitive impairment associated with health conditions such as stroke and traumatic brain injury. “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline … but did not have the science to back up its ads,” the FTC’s Jessica Rich said in a statement. The company also failed to inform consumers that some testimonials on its website were submitted in response to prize contests, the FTC said.
Representatives of Lumos Labs were unavailable to speak, but sent a prepared statement. It noted that the FTC inquiry dealt with “certain advertising language used in previous marketing campaigns,” and affirmed the company’s commitment to conduct research on the effects of its cognitive-training programs.
What does the research say? A number of papers report that brain-training software can improve cognitive abilities in the specific areas being trained, or in closely related domains. Most recently, Lumos Labs published a study on nearly 5,000 healthy elderly adults who either used its software or did crossword puzzles as a control five days per week for 10 weeks. Afterward, the software users performed better on neuropsychological tests measuring problem solving, processing speed, and short-term and working memory, the study concluded (see Hardy et al., 2015).
However, experts stress that the real question is whether such gains translate to meaningful improvements in everyday life. No such data is published for the Lumosity products, or most other computer game approaches. Even more broadly for brain training, few studies demonstrate a clear functional benefit. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study supported by the National Institutes of Health did find that healthy elderly participants who received six weeks of personalized training from researchers in reasoning and processing speed maintained those skills better than controls up to 10 years later. The experimental group self-reported better ability to handle everyday tasks than controls did; however, objective tests of their speed and efficiency found no difference between the groups (see Rebok et al., 2014; NIH press release).
Whether brain gaming software can slow cognitive decline remains even murkier. Only a handful of small studies have examined the effects of the Lumosity program in cognitively impaired people. These studies reported some improvements in the trained cognitive domains, but no clear functional benefit (see Jun 2014 news).
Marketing by the brain-training industry has already caused cognitive scientists to distance themselves from claims about brain gaming products. In 2014, 75 scientists signed a consensus statement jointly issued by the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Stanford Center on Longevity. It concluded “there is no compelling scientific evidence to date” that brain games can prevent cognitive decline. Parts of this statement irked other scientists in the broader field of cognitive training, however, and 133 of them offered a dissenting opinion, arguing that some specific interventions do bolster cognition and deserve further study.
Resolving the question may take time because the accepted gold standard, randomized controlled trials, is difficult to apply to brain-training games. John Harrison of Metis Cognition, Wiltshire, U.K., noted that the placebo group would have to receive a cognitive intervention that looked and felt like the treatment, but had no effect. “That is hard to imagine,” Harrison wrote. He and others argued against abandoning research on brain-training strategies. “The risk of rejecting the possibility that training works is that we might be throwing away one of the possible tools in our armamentarium for dealing with dementia,” he wrote (see full comment below).
In the meantime, some researchers in the Alzheimer’s field are making use of Lumos Labs’ software. The University of San Francisco’s Brain Health Registry incorporates Lumosity’s Neurocognitive Performance Test in its suite of cognitive assessments to track cognitive change in users over time (see Dec 2014 conference news). A public-relations spokesman for the registry told Alzforum the FTC ruling will not affect the registry’s use of the software.
Does the FTC ruling affect other companies entering the brain-training field? Not directly, but it reinforces the importance of demonstrating efficacy. Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco, co-founded software company Akili Interactive Labs to develop cognitive interventions and diagnostics in the form of video games. Akili does not yet have a product and has not done any marketing, or received any attention from the FTC, Gazzaley said. He previously designed NeuroRacer, a video driving game that required multitasking and boosted untrained but related abilities of attention and working memory in healthy adults (see Sep 2013 news). Gazzaley believes cognitive training can offer real benefits. “I remain cautiously optimistic that with high-level development and careful validation, we will create a new category of cognitive enhancement tools for both healthy minds and those suffering from deficits,” he wrote to Alzforum (see full comment below).—Madolyn Bowman Rogers
- Is Brain Training More Than Just Fun and Games?
- Try This at Home: Cognitive Testing in the Age of Prevention Trials?
- In Small Study, Brain Training Benefits Healthy Seniors
- Hardy JL, Nelson RA, Thomason ME, Sternberg DA, Katovich K, Farzin F, Scanlon M. Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial. PLoS One. 2015;10(9):e0134467. Epub 2015 Sep 2 PubMed.
- Rebok GW, Ball K, Guey LT, Jones RN, Kim HY, King JW, Marsiske M, Morris JN, Tennstedt SL, Unverzagt FW, Willis SL. Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2014 Jan 13; PubMed.
- Brain Training Database: Treasure Trove for Preclinical Alzheimer’s Research?
- A Life of Cognitive Enrichment May Fend Off Dementia. But How?
- Art as Therapy—Can Creative Expression Soothe Dementia Symptoms?
- Exercising Brain or Body: Both Seem to Help a Bit
- Tech Revolution: Behavioral and Cognitive Interventions
- On Your “Virtual” Bike! Exercise and Exergames Bring Benefits
- Cognitive Training—Check Out That Cabbie’s Massive Hippocampus