Brain-Training Companies Get Advice From Some Academics, Criticism From Others


An exercise in Lumosity's brain-training system. Some researchers say the companies that produce such games exaggerate the scientific basis for their claims.
October 22, 2014

Your brain is a tree.

Or, perhaps more fittingly, a bank account.

With metaphors like those, brain-game companies entice people to buy subscriptions to their online training programs, many of which promise to increase customers’ "neuroplasticity," "fluid intelligence," and working memory capacity. They even claim to help stave off the effects of aging.

Leading scientists have criticized those promises, though. The loudest objection came on Monday, when the Stanford Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in Berlin, released "A Consensus on the Brain-Training Industry From the Scientific Community," a statement objecting "to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline."

Nearly 70 psychology, neuroscience, and gerontology professors signed the document, which has been in the works since a group of scientists met, in April 2013, to discuss their concerns about the burgeoning industry that claims to draw on their research.

"There is a lot of concern in the scientific community because consumers hear that the games are based on scientific evidence when that ‘scientific evidence’ is generally tangential to the exaggerated claims," said Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a professor of public policy and psychology, in an email interview.

Skepticism about brain-training games from companies like Lumosity and Cogmed stems from a lack of transparency about data and findings, an absence of federal regulation, and the fact that some studies that companies cite to tout their products don’t use the control groups typical in peer-reviewed scientific research. A major point of contention is whether playing brain games for weeks leads to real improvements in memory and cognition—or simply makes you better at playing brain games.

But some professors’ concerns extend beyond consumer protection. They worry that their colleagues’ involvement with brain-training companies amounts to, as L. Todd Rose, an educational-neuroscience professor at Harvard University, said, "giving your credibility to them to sell a product."

"There’s a conflict of interest there," said Randall W. Engle, a psychology professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who has conducted several studies debunking brain-training claims. "It gives me the concern, when I read their papers: Is this the consultant for Lumosity talking, or is this the objective scientist talking?"

Money on the Table

Mr. Rose was asked to serve as an adviser to a brain-training start-up company that offered him equity in return for his services. He entered a provisional agreement on the condition that the company refrain from using his name until it set up their studies according to his recommendations. When he heard within a month that the company was citing his support to try to gain funding, he canceled the deal. He has no equity in any company in the brain-training sphere, he said.

"Personally I think it falls in the same kind of category as medical researchers' taking money from drug companies," Mr. Rose said. "It’s incredible how much money is thrown around there," he added. "It’s hard to get around the fact that people don’t argue against their pocketbook" when they stand to profit if the company does well.

Mr. Engle agreed.

"I don’t know that any of these people are disingenuous or deceitful," he said. "Being on the boards of these companies, if there’s any hint of remuneration, I think that’s a problem."

Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco who signed the statement, is the only person on the document with an asterisk next to his name. The caveat indicates that he has a conflict of interest because he serves as a paid consultant for Akili, a company he helped to found that is working to build clinical diagnostic cognitive games.

"In general I think academics and industry have to work together to have real innovations in people’s lives," he said. "We have to learn how to work together in as transparent and effective a way as possible."

The company is trying to gain federal regulatory approval for its games and, in accordance with Dr. Gazzaley’s advice, is refraining from making claims until it has data to support them.

Because Dr. Gazzaley receives personal compensation from Akili, he does not take research money from the company, in accordance with university rules. "That’s how you minimize conflict," he said.

Sometimes, endorsements are unintentional. Susanne M. Jaeggi, an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California at Irvine, briefly collaborated with Lumosity several years ago, hoping the company’s web platform would facilitate data collection on an experiment she and her research partners had designed. She had to keep requesting her data from the company, though, and terminated the project after running a few subjects. But her name is still in Lumosity's materials, and she has found her photo on other companies’ websites, used without her permission, to hint that she endorses their products.

"We had to tell them to take pictures down," Ms. Jaeggi said. "I’m not endorsing any commercial brain-training program that’s out there, ever."

'We Need to Have These Collaborations'

Posit Science, the cognitive-training company behind a program called BrainHQ, does contribute funds to Dr. Gazzaley’s lab, he said.

One former lab member, Jyoti Mishra, split her postdoctoral research time between the lab and the company. She’s now an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco.

"In ideal circumstances we should not have any kind of financial support from the industry sector," Ms. Mishra said. "It’s a difficult issue, but just because there can be points of conflict with industry, we can’t reduce the collaborations between academia and industry. Just to move the field forward, we need to have these collaborations."

Posit Science did not exert influence over any of her results, Ms. Mishra said. Other professors interviewed reported that Posit was similarly hands-off about the consulting work they did for the company or the research they conducted using the company's software tools.

Michael Merzenich, co-founder and chief scientific officer of the company, said the company does not tamper with the research it supports. He called the statement from the Stanford center and the Max Planck institute "irresponsible."

"It’s a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater," Mr. Merzenich said. "To be lumped into the same bag with people primarily focused on how well it sells as opposed to how well it works is frustrating. It’s so presumptive of scientists to take such a position. All the companies doing this on some level are trying to deliver some level of help to the people in need, and to say it’s all bogus is just wrong."

The statement does not mention any companies by name, and another organization, CogniFit, also sought to distance itself from the criticism.

"It’s a great article that doesn’t apply to us," Tommy Sagroun, chief executive officer of CogniFit, said of the scientists’ statement. "We have 15 years of scientific validation with leading institutions and peer-reviewed publications. What you see in our competitors, they claim their games are ‘based on science,’ and our games are scientifically validated, which is not the same thing at all. It’s simply a marketing term that is very misleading. It’s not hard to ‘base things on science.’"

Jerri D. Edwards, an associate professor at the University of South Florida's School of Aging Studies, declined to sign the statement because she believes it conflates suspect brain games with legitimate cognitive-training research produced by companies such as, she said, Posit Science.

"I agree with the fact that there are many products out there that may or may not be evidence-based," she said. "I don’t think all the brain-training companies do that."

Avoiding Ethical Issues

Lumosity teams up with researchers who apply to its Human Cognition Project, which does not typically fund their work but does provide free access to the company’s tools, training program, and reports, said Melissa Malski, a spokeswoman for the company.

But Lumosity awarded the first Human Cognition Grant of $150,000 last year to Joseph B. Hopfinger, a professor of cognitive psychology, and Kathleen Gates, an assistant professor of quantitative psychology, both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ms. Gates said the process had been similar to receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health.

"After a certain amount of time, we can use the data however we choose," she said. "We are under no obligation to hide results."

However, the researchers may have to declare their affiliation with Lumosity when they submit their findings to journals, Ms. Gates said.

"When we publish this, we will have to say we have a conflict of interest, probably," she said. "I don’t feel like I would have a conflict of interest. I stand to lose or gain nothing. It doesn’t matter what I write, the outcome for me is the same."

Mr. Rose said that while Lumosity’s evaluation criteria seem standard, he believes there needs to be more transparency about which proposals the company selects and why.

"For example, how often do they select proposals where the hypothesis is that the program doesn’t work?" he wrote in an email.

Lumosity did not respond to requests for additional comment.

To deal with scientists’ concerns, Mr. Rose recommended that the company publish proposal abstracts and hypotheses in advance and require researchers to submit their results for publication in peer-reviewed journals no matter the outcomes. Studies not accepted should still be summarized on the website, he said.

"I know that sounds like a lot of effort," he said, "but I think it would go a long way toward helping to ensure that brain-training companies avoid the ethical issues that have plagued sponsored drug research and other medical and biological sciences."