Michael Hiltzik
Column

If you weren't smart enough to know Lumosity was making bogus claims, the FTC has your back

The online consumer company Lumosity had a great pitch for an age-panicked, self help-oriented target audience: Subscribe to our program of memory and cognition games, and your brain performance will get better. You might even fight off the effects of Alzheimer's.

The Federal Trade Commission has a name for these assertions: Bull. In a lawsuit filed Monday in San Francisco federal court against Lumos Labs, the San Francisco company that owns Lumosity, the FTC asserted that these claims were false or unsubstantiated.

In a settlement also filed Monday, Lumosity agreed to stop making such claims, to allow any of its reported 35 million users on $14.95 monthly subscription plans to cancel their automatic renewals, and to pay $2 million. The court order imposed a $50-million judgment on Lumosity--typically, that would represent the FTC's estimate of consumer harm from the company's activities--but under the settlement all but $2 million is suspended because of the firm's "financial condition." The firm's co-founders Kunal Sarkar and Michael Scanlon were co-defendants. 

"Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a written statement. "But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads."

Lumosity's marketing is ubiquitous. As the FTC described its system, customers were put through their paces for a recommended 15 minutes a day, several days a week, on more than 40 online games featuring memory and other cognitive challenges.

The company's claim, as the FTC lawsuit stated, was that such "brain training" would "improve performance on everyday tasks...delay age-related decline in memory" and protect against "mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease, and 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."

Lumosity's marketing featured references to scientific studies and testimonials purportedly from customers--though the company didn't disclose that some of those testimonials came from customers offered iPads, expense-paid trips, or lifetime subscriptions in return for their words.

Lumosity, in a statement following the settlement, asserted that the deal "does not speak to the rigor of our research or the quality of our products," and added, "we proudly stand behind the Lumosity product."

In truth there is limited evidence that such "brain training" has more than a short-term effect on overall intelligence or cognitive performance; the largest studies indicate there's no effect except for performance on the tests themselves -- possibly the result of increased familiarity with the tests. After performing a large study, Georgia Tech researchers advised in 2013 that results to the contrary should be viewed "with a critical eye," as many previous studies were too small or sloppy to be fully trusted. 

Similar doubts were voiced by researchers at MIT, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. A meta-analysis at the University of Oslo compiling results from 23 studies "cast doubt on both the clinical relevance of working memory training programs and their utility as methods of enhancing cognitive functioning," its authors wrote. For a good rundown of the leading research in the field, see this overview from Slate.com.

Lumosity's marketing--and that of other "brain training" outfits -- has been aimed cleverly at two consumer vulnerabilities. One is the natural desire for a quick fix. This category includes two-week diet nostrums, "learn a language while you sleep" programs, and "get great abs with five minutes a day" exercise devices. Who doesn't want to learn the secret to achieving maximum results with minimal effort? Stave off senile dementia by playing computer games? Sign me up! 

The other vulnerability is the tendency of the average person to trust "scientific" studies. Lots of nutritional supplement and food product packaging comes decorated with lists of studies at big universities, but consumers almost never examine those studies, much less the broader scientific literature, to determine if they hold water.

Sometimes the FTC calls foul, as it did in 2013 by ordering POM Wonderful to cease making misleading claims of health benefits from its pomegranate juice and other products. POM, a Los Angeles company owned by billionaires Lynda and Stewart Resnick, touted a study ostensibly supporting its claims but not larger studies that contradicted them. Nor did the company explain the statistical and technical limitations of studies it cited to back up its claims.  

FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, in a separate concurring opinion in the Lumosity case, specifically expressed "concerns regarding the marketing of brain training programs going forward." She was right to do so. The vagueness of the scientific evidence and the fears everyone has of growing old and losing mental acuity can provide easy pickings for charlatans. Warnings to advertisers that they better have "rigorous, scientific support to substantiate claims for products that purport to prevent or treat health or disease-related conditions," as Brill set forth, can only keep Americans healthier.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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