Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Does Lumosity's Brain Training System Work?

Can an online brain training program (i.e. Lumosity) improve memory or help patients with mild cognitive impairment or dementia? That's what the company claimed until the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) made them stop. The FTC says that Lumosity's claims for its product are "unsubstantiated" because they are not backed by scientific proof, and has asked the company to quit making such claims. (The company has done so.) Lumosity will pay a fine of about two million dollars, according to an article in The New York Times.

But don't expect this to be the end of it. The fundamental issue of how to determine whether brain training actually works remains with us. People who have undergone brain training often "feel" that they have improved, but have they really? When people know they've purchased the program and undergone the training, it is quite natural for them to feel that they have improved. It's the well-known placebo effect. But how would one prove any improvement, even if it had occurred? If tests similar to the training games are used for assessment, or if the same types of tests are used for "before" and "after" assessments, then how would one know that any improvement isn't just the result of familiarity with the type of assessment test? In addition, do better speeds or scores on a computer game translate to a delay of memory loss or the development of dementia over many decades? Finally, does brain training improve cognitive ability in any more general way, such as making better decisions or being a more successful student? The experts aren't yet convinced that it does, hence the FTC's action.

Any company that can convince the scientific community and government regulators (such as the FTC) that it actually can train the brain to perform better in the long-term will make a lot of money. I'd be one of the first to buy their product. But we're not there yet.

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