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Lumosity fined $2 million for deceiving customers about its ‘brain training’ programs

In 2014, 69 of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists issued an open letter that warned people not to be duped by the marketing hype around “brain-training” products.

Lumos Labs, the creators and marketers of the Lumosity “brain training” games, agreed on Tuesday to pay $2 million in fines to settle a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lawsuit that charges the company deceived customers with unsubstantiated health claims and questionably obtained testimonials.

As part of the settlement, the San Francisco-based company must also notify its customers, many of whom pay an ongoing $15 a month to use its products, about the FTC action and give them an easy way of canceling their subscription.

“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, in a released statement. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

Lumosity is widely advertised on television, radio and social media. As the FTC points out, Lumos Labs has also purchased hundreds of keywords from Google related to memory, cognition, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, a practice that has driven people doing online searches on those topics to its website. According to the company’s website, its 50-plus “brain training” games are currently used by 72 million people in 182 countries. Customers access the games online through a computer or a mobile phone app.

Many false claims

The FTC’s 28-page complaint cites a long list of false claims that Lumos Labs has made about its Lumosity games. The company has stated, without evidence, that using these products for 15 or 20 minutes several times a week will improve performance on everyday tasks, including at school, work and on the athletic field. It has also said the games will help delay age-related memory decline and protect against other age-related conditions such as mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, the company has claimed its “brain training” techniques reduce cognitive impairment associated with the side effects of chemotherapy, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Turner syndrome, stroke and other health conditions.

(For future reference: The longer the list of health benefits a company attributes to a product, the warier you should be about using it.)

The FTC complaint also notes that Lumos Labs solicited testimonials for its games through contests that promised significant prizes, such as a free iPad or a trip to San Francisco.

Using such tactics calls into question the validity of the testimonials, as people are likely to say a product produced positive results, even if it didn’t, just to get a chance to win a prize.

Company’s response

In a statement, Lumos Labs said it settled the FTC lawsuit “in order to focus on what is most important to us: Delivering engaging cognitive training products to our 70+ million members and promoting innovation within the field of cognitive training.” It also noted that the settlement “does not speak to the rigor of our research or the quality of the products.” 

In support of that research “rigor,” the Lumos Labs statement refers to two studies. One, published last fall in PLOS ONE,  reported that “participants who trained with Lumosity for 10 weeks improved on an aggregate assessment of cognition,” according to the company. The other, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, investigated “the reliability and validity” of one of the company’s tests for measuring cognitive performance.

What the statement doesn’t make clear, however, is that the authors of both studies are employed at Lumos Labs.

Beware the hype

In 2014 (as I reported at the time), 69 of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists issued an open letter that warned people not to be duped by the marketing hype around “brain-training” products — even when those products appear to be wrapped in science. 

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products,” the scientists wrote. “In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are ‘designed by neuroscientists’ at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of research centers. Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.”

The scientists who wrote the letter acknowledged that some individual studies on cognitive training have had some interesting findings, but “to date,” they stressed,  “there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.”

“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,” they concluded. “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. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.

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