Lumosity, the “brain training” program by Lumos Labs, has landed the company in hot water after the FTC determined that they were participating in false advertising. According to a report from CBC, the FTC said that Lumosity “preyed on consumers’ fears” in claiming that playing their games a few times a week could improve work and school performance, and even delay conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
If you’ve been online or watched television in the past few years, you’ve probably seen some of Lumosity‘s ubiquitous ads yourself. They claim to help players “learn faster,” be sharper,” “remember things,” and “relieve stress.” They claim to bring “better brain health.” And they claim to be “the web’s #1 brain training program.” They even claimed to increase things like physical reaction time, enlisting three-time Ultimate Fighting Championship champion George St-Pierre in a campaign which suggested that “no matter how fast your opponent throws,” users could “dodge their punches with Lumosity.”
But according to Jessica Rich, a director in FTC’s consumer protection unit, “Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”
Lumosity sells subscriptions for $15 USD a month, or $300 for lifetime access to Lumosity‘s online and mobile apps, a suite of more than 40 games focused on memory, attention, flexibility, problem solving and processing speed. According to Science Magazine, as part of the settlement, Lumos Labs will be required to display a pop-up informing potential subscribers of the FTC order before they can proceed with their payment. It will also require Lumos to give users an easy way to cancel their auto-renewing subscriptions, and before existing users can access the games, will display the same pop-up and allow them to cancel their subscriptions immediately.
In addition to their claims about Lumosity‘s efficacy, the complaint also alleged that Lumos had failed to disclose that many of their customer testimonials had been solicited through contests promising prizes like iPads and free flights, as required by FTC rules. Those rules also require that the consumers’ claims in published endorsements must be backed by scientific evidence exactly as if those claims were being made by the company itself; in other words, Lumos would have to be able to prove that Lumosity could improve someone’s cognitive functions before publishing a customer testimonial claiming that it had done so.
Representatives of Lumosity, meanwhile, state that the FTC decision is not reflective of the quality of their products, or the research behind them.
“Neither the action nor the settlement pertains to the rigor of our research or the quality of the products — it is a reflection of marketing language that has been discontinued.
“The recent peer-reviewed clinical test published in the journal PLOS One is a large, randomized, active-controlled trial of our cognitive training program. The study reported that participants who trained with Lumosity for 10 weeks improved on an aggregate assessment of cognition.”
But the FTC disagrees, citing two scientific consensus statements from Stanford University researchers, and a large NIH-funded study of brain-training games. Michelle Rusk, an FTC spokesperson, said that, at best, the studies show that if you practice a task, you get better at it.
“Basically, we think the most that they have shown is that with enough practice you get better on these games, or on similar cognitive tasks. There’s no evidence that training transfers to any real world setting.”
The FTC’s settlement with Lumosity is part of a larger crackdown on companies which claim to improve cognition or enhance memory, which has become an increasing concern over the past few years, and many researchers have studied “brain training” broadly to assess whether it has any benefit. By and large, the consensus has been that they do not, and the FTC has already penalized several related companies, including Focus Education, and Carrot Neurotechnology Inc., and have their sights set on more.
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