Emily Baines
January 12, 2016 2:31 pm

I always thought playing games to improve one’s cognitive abilities seemed a little fishy, a little too much like science-fiction. Apparently, the Federal Trade Commission agreed. This week, the FTC settled their suit against the brain-training website Lumosity for a whopping $2 million. According to Fortune Magazine, this settlement signals more regulation and scrutiny of the $1.3 billion brain-game market, which ranges from subscription fees for Lumosity’s word games and brain twisters to $15,000 retreats. That’s one pricy vacation.

In their complaint, the FTC asserted that Lumosity made many unsubstantiated claims about its games, and that some of the company’s testimonials were solicited with “prizes.”

The FTC complaint also stated that Lumosity used Google Adwords to “prey on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”

In just the past year, the FTC has brought deceptive-marketing cases against four cognitive companies providing such services. “Cognitive training products and claims are of significant interest to the FTC,” says a spokesman for the agency. “Significant interest” may be an understatement. FTC commissioner Julie Brill felt so strongly about the Lumosity case that she issued a separate statement expressing her personal concern about this so-called “brain training.” She warned, “I caution Lumosity and other companies about making representations that overstate the benefits of these products or misleadingly imply that improvements in the game setting transfer to real-world benefits.”

Scientists have long questioned the claims made by companies such as Lumosity. In the fall of 2015, more than 70 neuroscience and psychology professors from institutions such as Stanford and Harvard signed a document objecting to claims by brain training companies that consumers can reduce or reverse cognitive decline. According to these scientists and professors, there was no compelling evidence to back the companies’ downright miraculous claims.

Lumosity’s parent company, Lumos Labs, did not admit or deny the FTC’s allegations, but the company says it has long since abandoned the use of disease-related terms in its search ad campaigns and has removed many of the controversial claims from its site. They added that the FTC did not challenge that using Lumosity improved cognition, and pledged to continue “rigorous research” into the idea that brain training is linked to improving cognitive functions and delaying the decline of the functions.

Nonetheless, skepticism abounds among scientists. The scientific community wants to see research that is published in peer-reviewed journals, says Thomas Redick, a cognitive psychology researcher at Purdue University. Redick suggests that studies employ control groups and the findings should be replicated by outside scientists. The results should also be based on testing participants before and after the training, rather than relying simply on self-reporting by participants. All this makes sense and seems reasonable, right?

In fact, Redick’s concern regarding Lumosity’s studies echo the FTC’s complaint. Until recently, Lumos Labs listed a great many studies on its website, but the vast majority were conducted by its in-house research team and more than 100 research collaborators. In Redick and the FTC’s view, internal studies aren’t credible enough.

Lumosity is listening. Lumos Labs recently reworked its website to include its most rigorous study to date with a sample set of 4,715 participants. According to this study, Lumosity game players scored better in cognitive testing than those that simply used crossword puzzles. Redick, however, was quick to point out that the sample of participants were drawn from existing Lumosity account holders, which makes it difficult to control placebo effects and expectations.

While the evidence suggests there may be a slight improvement in cognitive ability when using Lumosity, more research will need to be done to satisfy the scientific community and the FTC.

(Image via Universal Pictures)

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