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Is 'brain training' effective?

Created date

April 5th, 2016
illustration of brain training

Illustration showing brain training.

Brain training is a popular pastime. People are doing crossword and Sudoku puzzles, playing trivia games, and completing memory exercises to keep their minds sharp and engaged. While there may be benefits to cognitive training, some of the fabulous claims made by a leader in the field aren’t backed up by science.

Lumosity is an online site offering cognitive training to millions of its members. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the company advertised that training on its 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.

TV and radio ads running on CNN, The History Channel, National Public Radio, Fox News, and Spotify claimed that training with Lumosity would 1) improve performance on everyday tasks, in school, at work, and in athletics; 2) delay age-related cognitive decline and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease; and 3) 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.

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

What cognitive health really means

They didn’t have the science because the science doesn’t exist. In October of 2014, more than 70 psychologists and neuroscientists signed a statement released by the Stanford Center on Longevity that said, “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”

As a result of the FTC’s action, Lumosity must pay a fine. They must also notify subscribers who signed up for an auto-renewal plan between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2014, about the FTC action and provide them with a means to cancel their subscription.

The company is also prohibited from making further claims about its cognitive training without reliable scientific proof to back up those claims.

In their response to the FTC action, Lumosity said, “It is important to note that 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. Going forward, a key focus of our ongoing research is to build on these studies to better understand how training-driven improvements on tests of cognition translate to performance in participants’ everyday lives.”