News and Views: Brain training – An emerging field plagued with problems

Every year, millions of people around the world sign up for gym
memberships to try and make themselves “better.” Each have their own motivation
for going – to get stronger, to look better, or to avoid future health problems.
Whatever the reason, the fitness and health club industry pulls in $80 billion a year
from people ready to put in endless hours for hard, back breaking work to improve
themselves. With that in mind, what value can be expected from an app that
promises to improve your brain through fun games played at your leisure?
Brain training – performing a task to improve perception, cognition, or any
other mental process – is a burgeoning new industry based on the longstanding
scientific theories of neuroplasticity and learning. Countless scientific papers have
found that repeated training on a task improves a plethora of mental processes,
from memory to various forms of perception. While these findings focus on basic
components of cognition, such as working memory, it’s a short leap to suggest that
training can improve the higher functions that rely on these basics. Thus, brain
training promises near limitless potential to improve mental processing, and with it,
nearly every aspect of a person’s life.
In recent years a plethora of companies have sprung up pursuing this
promise, mainly in the form of websites and apps. The iTunes App Store currently
boasts an impressive number of brain training apps, chief among them Peak,
Elevate, and the now infamous Lumosity. Launched in 2007, Lumosity generated
nearly $24 million in revenue through its website and app, which claimed to reduce
cognitive decline and even stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s. Other apps focused
on other niches of brain training, such as Carrot Neurotechnology’s app Ultimeyes,
which promised to improve vision, and Focus Education, which created numerous
games designed to help children with ADHD and other learning disabilities.
Together, these apps and sites attracted hundreds of thousands of users, bringing in
nearly $2 billion in 2016.
However, 2016 proved to be a turning point for brain training, as the Federal
Trade Commission determined many of these claims to be misleading, and cracked
down hard on the industry. Lumos Labs, creators of Lumosity.com, agreed to a
settlement of $2 million to the FTC for misleading advertising. Carrot
Neurotechnology likewise settled with the FTC for $150,000, while LearningRx was
fined $200,000. Numerous other companies were hit with similar fines, and ordered
to walk back the bold claims made in their ads. Central to these judgments was the
FTC’s assertion that the claims made lacked scientific backing, arguing that papers
many ads cited were misleading, misinterpreted, or not sufficient evidence to back
the claim. Several studies also emerged suggesting that the results seen from brain
training were confounded in some way, casting doubt on even the few companies
that emerged unscathed from the FTC’s fines.
Despite these issues, the brain training industry continues to grow. Research
and Markets recently forecast the market to reach $8 billion by 2021, driven by an
aging population and an increased desire to improve mental faculties. In addition,
many brain training companies are now working with scientists and using less
sensationalist claims in their ads. It remains to be seen if the turmoil of 2016 will

repeat itself in the future, or simply be a catalyst that moved the industry in a more
honest and reliable direction. As researchers continue to refine the technology it is
likely that brain training will provide enormous benefits for those who participate
in the programs. And with a population that continues to demand new ways to
improve themselves, it will likely provide even more enormous profits to those that
run the programs.

 

Matthew Cavanaugh, Ph.D.

Senior V.P. of Business Development

 

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