False Promise Brain Training Apps EdTech Insider EDUKWEST

The (False) Promise of Brain Training Apps

Can the daily use of brain training apps really make us smarter and delay or even prevent health conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease? The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is not convinced it can and reached a settlement with brain training app maker Lumosity.

Lumosity has to pay $2 million in fines and send out a statement about the settlement to its customers. In addition, the company has to offer an easy way to cancel auto renewal subscriptions to all existing clients who signed up between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2014.

Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection stated that

“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. […] But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

Lumosity now has to come up with “competent and reliable scientific evidence” before it can promote the benefits for real-world performance, age-related decline, or other health conditions of its products in the future.

Founded in 2007, Lumosity has raised over $67 million in venture capital to date. And although brain training games are hardly anything new, they have become all the rage in recent years as they claim to help you react quicker and improve your memory among other things.

We reached out to Alicia Chang, a former academic cognitive psychologist and researcher who now works in the technology industry to give her take on scientific claims made by edtech and health startups. She is a long time advocate for the proper use of scientific findings in the development and marketing of learning applications.

From a scientific point of view, is “brain training” as it is advertised today possible?

From what I gather, the settlement is in regards to language used in marketing claims that made strong causal claims (i.e., using Lumosity causes a decline or prevents dementia). It’s “dangerous” to ever truly make a causal claim in any scientific study (which makes it even more dangerous to claim it in a product) because every experiment, regardless of how carefully it’s conducted has its limitations. Furthermore, scientists work under the assumption that every theory is falsifiable and science is in and of itself always changing. Even if a carefully controlled study saw a positive relationship between a group that did brain training and had less mental decline over time, it would be difficult to say definitively whether the causal agent was the brain training itself. Statistics help of course, but you have to be very careful in how you word it.

These quotes from neuroscientists on the matter might be useful.

What do we know about the impact of brain training games on performance and cognitive health? There are some studies about the benefits of bilingualism?

I think the jury’s still out on this one. My graduate school classmate did a study that found that brain training makes you better at the task you’re practicing. In terms of if the tasks transfer to “real life” activities like remembering phone numbers or things that happened a long time ago, I don’t think anyone can ever truly find a link there. As for bilinguals, I don’t think you can necessarily draw causal conclusions there either, but you can study large groups of bilinguals over time and take multiple measures of different types of skills or on different behavioral tasks.

Here is the link to Elliott’s study.

How much effort in terms of financing and manpower would a company need to come up with a sound scientific basis for a brain training app.

This is a tricky question. “Good science” takes a lot of money as well as a lot of time. Most startups, or even well-established tech companies move a lot more quickly than traditional academic science. In the case of brain training, a well-controlled study would want to follow patients over the course of years, not weeks or months. This would probably cost well into the millions of dollars and require many staff (dozens to hundreds). Venture backed companies simply cannot handle this in terms of money, time, and headcount. Investors require quick turnarounds and measure success in metrics that don’t align with how progress in science is measured.

How would you promote a brain training app without the possibility to claim performance enhancement and health benefits?

Again, there is kind of a basic disconnect between goals of traditional scientists and producers of apps / games that purport to promote health or learning gains of some sort. You can design apps / games with the help of expert consultants (I myself have acted in this capacity for various companies), but a lot of that kind of help is steeped in theory. For example, I could give suggestions on how to make a product age appropriate or supportive of learning based on what I know about the literature, but will that in turn create a product that causes learning? I really can’t say without studying it carefully over the course of months or years.

A true partnership with a university lab could potentially aid a lot of these issues of scientific soundness, but they also introduce a lot of conflicts of interest, especially when money is exchanged for expertise or lab time.

Here are some more links that might be helpful:

All in all we conclude that there is little to no scientific evidence today that a few minutes a day with brain training apps actually helps you train your mental skills or would make you an overall fitter human being with improved memory, attention, and problem solving skills.

Although the promise is certainly tempting and further clinical research with more patients over a longer period of time may come up with results that could eventually benefit the end user in some shape or form; users should take brain training apps for what they are at the moment: entertainment with some learning and memorization aspects.

All of the above aside, the brain training vertical enjoys unbowed popularity from both startup founders and investors alike. Last year UK-based Peak raised a $7 million Series A, in 2014 German-based Memorado raised a €1 million Seed Round.

Even an established company like Rosetta Stone couldn’t resist and bought Vivity Labs in late 2013 to enter the hot vertical as it believes the acquisition will aid in its transition from language to learning company.

Other funded startups in the space include Elevate which also transitioned from its popular language learning app MindSnacks to brain training and TidePool which develops the app Cognito.

It will certainly be interesting to follow how Lumosity and other brain training app developers will adjust their advertisement based on the settlement with the FTC and whether they will dedicate a bigger chunk of their funding to solid research that could eventually prove their initial claims.

Picture by Hey Paul Studios via Flickr

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at KirstenWinkler.com.