What if a few exercises could strengthen the brain just as easily as a trip to the gym strengthens muscles? That’s the allure behind brain-training games. But the science of cognition doesn’t necessarily back up the claims of these popular programs. Now, the Federal Trade Commission has gone after one major brain game purveyor, Lumosity, for false advertising.
“It’s a fun workout and my brain feels great,” says the actor in one of Lumosity’s ads. A voice over then explains that the exercises, which involve matching, recall, puzzles and logic questions, are based on the science of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that the brain can change under the right challenges and conditions. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that new connections can be made even in adults.
Lumosity is produced by Lumos Labs and offers more than 50 online games that they claim could help reduce the effects of dementia, enhance memory and boost brain function in other ways, reports Emily Underwood for Science. Users could pay $14.95 for a monthly subscription or get a lifetime membership for $299.95.
They promoted their service far and wide—ads peppered the airwaves on National Public Radio, Spotify, the History Channel, CNN, Fox News and more; online through blog posts, social media; and used Google AdWords to purchase of “hundreds of keywords related to memory, cognition, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” according to a press release from the FTC.
The company claimed that training with the games for 10 to 15 minutes several times a week could help people reach their “full potential in every aspect of life.”
“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, says in the press release. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
The FTC slapped the company with a $50 million judgment but is accepting a $2 million settlement. The judgment also requires Lumosity to offer subscribers who signed up for a plan in the past seven years a way to cancel their subscription.
The ruling likely didn’t come as a surprise to neuroscientists and other cognition researchers. In the fall of 2014, 70 researchers signed a statement critiquing the claims made by brain-training games. Lumosity wasn’t the only program targeted by this critique—others, such as Cogmed, have also advertised that their games are science-based. According to the statement, the research these companies cite is “only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell,” reports Underwood for a Science story published at the time.
At first glance, the foundation for the company’s claims seems reasonable. Neuroscientists themselves have consulted on the design of Lumosity and other providers’ games, and there is some evidence that the games could improve brain function. For example, a 2013 study on memory training suggests such tools might help children with ADHD, but the evidence only points to short term benefits for the kids’ performance in that game, not necessarily outside it. The ads miss this subtlety.
“Almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies go beyond the data,” Doraiswamy tells Tara Parker-Pope at The New York Times. “We need large national studies before you can conclude that it’s ready for prime time.” While there’s likely no harm in playing such games, Doaiswamy questions whether paying for the pleasure is worth it.
The FTC has also penalized other companies for misleading advertisements, Underwood reports for Science, including Focus Education, a brain-training game aimed for kids, and Carrot Technology, a program that is supposed to improve eyesight.
Last year Lumosity announced that they had more than 70 million subscribers. But with these recent developments, that number may soon change.