Brain-training games are big business, but buyer beware

Brain games may be a billion-dollar business, but buyer beware when the companies that create them start making wild claims about their cognitive benefit, warned a Western neuroscientist.

“Brain training is a self-perpetuating force of nature. It has been exasperating to see the public get suckered into this the way they have,” said Adrian Owen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at the Brain and Mind Institute.

“This is a con. In any other context, this would be illegal. Take the pharmaceutical industry. If they started marketing a pill they said made you smarter, with no scientific evidence to prove it, various government agencies would come down on them like a ton of bricks.”

Brain training made headlines last week when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered one such company, Lumos Labs, maker of Lumosity, to pay $2 million to settle federal allegations it misled customers about the cognitive benefits.

The Lumosity program consists of 40 games purportedly designed to train specific areas of the brain. The company advertised training on these games for 10-15 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.

According to the FTC’s complaint, the government alleges the defendants claimed training with Lumosity would:

  • Improve performance on everyday tasks, in school, at work and in athletics;
  • Delay age-related cognitive decline and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; and
  • Reduce cognitive impairment associated with health conditions, including stroke, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, ADHD, the side effects of chemotherapy, and Turner syndrome, and that scientific studies proved these benefits.

“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.”

Owen echoed those sentiments.

“One of the problems is, the science is being misrepresented. Of course, brain training works. If you practice the violin, you get better at playing the violin. Your brain has changed. The public is aware of that,” he explained. “But what brain-training companies are doing is distorting that message.

“Practicing the violin will make you better at the violin – that is a different message than practicing these brain-training games will make you smarter, get a better job, do better in school. There is no evidence to support that claim.”

The Western Psychology professor has a history debunking the industry.

In 2010, Owen and an international team of researchers conducted the largest trial to date of ‘brain-training’ computer games. Their findings showed zero transfer effects from the training tasks to more general tests of cognition. A paper based on their findings, Putting brain training to the test, was published in Nature in June 2010 and has been cited more than 500 times since.

In 2015, Owen served as scientific advisor to CBC’s Marketplace for an investigation into brain-training games such as Lumosity. Those findings, yet again, found no significant improvement on any of the tests.

Lumosity is one of the most visible services in the brain training industry, which has estimated sales of more than $1 billion per year, according to trade publications.

Lumos Labs has pushed back on the settlement. In a statement released following the FTC announcement, they said “this settlement does not speak to the rigor of our research or the quality of our products. We proudly stand behind the Lumosity product that millions of our members train with each month.”

The company also cited two papers published in open-access journals, PLOS ONE and Frontiers in Psychology, as further evidence of its product’s success.

Owen, however, cautioned about following the lead of white papers or industry-financed studies to base policy on in this area. He echoed other scientists’ calls for a return to peer-review journals as a standard in these instances.

“I am spending my whole life and lots of public money trying to find things that will help things like Alzheimer’s disease,” Owen continued. “It’s a tough nut to crack. It is a very difficult problem for tens of thousands of neuroscientists around the world. It’s pretty insulting that a company can just put on their website that doing these games can reduce the cognitive impact of dementia. It obviously cannot be true.

“We don’t need an FTC ruling to know this. I know that cannot be true because I would have read it in the literature – in Science or Nature. The same way I know we have not yet put a man on Mars, because I would have read about that.”

Owen stressed buyers can enjoy these products for what they are, but should take responsibility for their own brains in the end.

“I have been encouraging the public to take responsibility for their own cognitive function and ability,” Owen concluded, citing the Cambridge Brain Sciences website that provides scientifically proven tools for the assessment of cognitive function over the web. “The idea is, you can go there if you have a theory, or a worry, or a concern, or a hope about something, and test yourself.”

He even encouraged true-believers in brain-training games to put their abilities to the test – test your brain, play the games, then test your brain again.

“You can look for your own improvement. We’re in an age where people can get closer to the science than they ever have before. They don’t have to go and read stuffy old Nature papers from 2010. They can log on and find out how their brain is functioning.”

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GET YOUR BRAIN ON

Looking for an evidence-based way to test your own cognitive abilities? Visit the Cambridge Brain Sciences website, cambridgebrainsciences.com, for a full battery of free scientifically proven tools for the assessment of cognitive function over the web.