The ads were pervasive, popping up on CNN, Fox News, NPR, and Google searches. And they were persuasive: Playing Lumosity games would do your brain good.
“Can you remember the name of that song you just heard?” one announcer asked Pandora listeners. “Most people find that memory declines with age. But your memory doesn’t have to. Control and improve your memory with Lumosity.com, the personal trainer for your brain.”
A TV spot offered similar reassurances. “I take care of my body,” a woman said. “But it’s harder to take care of my brain. Lumosity.com is based on neuroscience. And it just seems like games, but it’s serious brain training.”
But these claims sounded a little too rosy to the Federal Trade Commission, which cited these and other ads in alleging that Lumos Labs, the maker of Lumosity, preyed on people’s fears with non-scientifically validated claims. Earlier this year, the company settled the charges by paying $2 million into a fund for refunds, though it’s by no means going away or giving up — it has a new CEO at the helm and a plan to create new games and bring on more customers.
It was a stumble for a company that had, up until that point, been a bright light in the booming online brain-training game industry. It was a cautionary tale for a cottage industry that’s risen sharply despite debatable scientific evidence that the products actually work. And it was an example of a startup whose buzz and private valuations rose sharply despite such questionable evidence. While Lumos Labs, Theranos, and Zenefits all have different business models and answer to different regulatory agencies, their newly public struggles have helped spur regulators, investors, and customers to more closely scrutinize the claims of startups, health-related and otherwise.
After graduating from Princeton University in 2001, Michael Scanlon moved to Palo Alto to study neuroscience at Stanford University; his research centered around how environmental conditions and certain behaviors affect the brain. Then he left school after a few years to start Lumos Labs with Kunal Sarkar, a fellow Princeton alumnus who had been working at a private equity firm. Another co-founder was David Drescher, who oversaw the company’s products and technology.
It was an auspicious time to be getting into the brain-training business. Scanlon likely didn’t know it at the time, but his business was at the nexus of several macro-level trends: Baby boomers in the United States are living longer than their predecessors, aging-related cognitive disorders have become a pressing public health issue, the knowledge economy continues to grow, and virtually all dementia-related therapies have flamed out in clinical trials.
Today, Lumosity has more than 70 million users from 182 countries. One hundred forty employees work in its San Francisco office, which is decked out with education-themed touches: a library shelved with staff-donated books, chess sets, rooms named after Lumosity games. Forbes named it one of “America’s Most Promising Companies” in 2013. It’s raised nearly $68 million in venture capital.
And as it grew, a constellation of get-smart-quick games, apps, and websites mushroomed up around it. SharpBrains, an independent market research firm that tracks the digital brain-training industry, names the year of Lumos Labs’ founding — 2005 — as when that market began to explode. According to SharpBrains’ estimates, it was worth $210 million then and upwards of $1 billion in 2012; it will exceed $6 billion in 2020. That’s due to high interest in several online brain-training games from companies like Posit Science, the maker of BrainHQ, founded in 2002; Peak, founded in 2012; and Elevate, which launched its app in 2014.
In the electronic gaming era, one of Lumosity’s immediate predecessors was Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!, a game for Nintendo DS. Released in 2005, it featured sudoku puzzles, math questions, and reaction-time tests and sparked a sequel plus reformulations on other platforms. And it was inspired, Nintendo said, by the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, who appeared in the game. But the company shied away from making scientific claims, stressing that it was a “fun, rewarding form of entertainment.”
Indeed, while many neuroscientists acknowledge that some early research shows promise for certain kinds of brain training, they say that overall there is thin evidence that they improve customers’ cognitive abilities in other areas of life. What research does seem to show is that physical exercise offers modest protection against cognitive decline (although this is not a closed question, either).
But it’s easier to flock to brain-training games on phones and computers than to hit the gym.
Internet companies opened access to training that felt like tools previously only available at a neuropsychologist’s office. Now “you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars getting assessments, doing programs,” said Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains. “You could do it for $20, $30, maybe $100. It’s not as good, not as targeted, but it’s better than nothing. The demand was there.”
Lumos Labs’ new CEO, Steve Berkowitz, is not a scientist. He has been the president of IDG Books, the publisher of the Dummies series; an executive at Microsoft; the CEO of Ask.com, which was sold for $1.85 billion; and the CEO of Move Inc., the operator of realtor.com, which was acquired for $950 million. He describes the thread that ties together his career as “dealing with consumers and how they engage with technology.”
So when a recruiter approached him about the gig last year, Berkowitz, who’d already been casually playing Lumosity for a few months, went to read its App Store reviews. There were more than 90,000, most of them positive. “When I looked at it,” he told BuzzFeed News in his office, “I was more focused on this idea that if you have something consumers engage in and enjoy, then that’s a strong foundation by which you can build a business.”
By the time Berkowitz joined in November, Lumos Labs was already a 10-year-old business. Its more than 50 games are animated and colorful: Players race through deserts, do quick math calculations before raindrops hit the earth, and remember shapes and colors as they change from one screen to the next. The games, which grow progressively harder as players improve, test memory, flexibility, attention, and problem-solving. Some are free, but with a premium subscription that starts at $12 a month or $60 a year, players can access the vast majority and have their progress tracked.
At Lumosity’s core is “this idea that people are wanting to find ways to engage in things they potentially feel will keep their minds engaged,” Berkowitz said. “It’s something that the company has done a really good job of, of taking those basic scientific concepts and turning them into engaging entertainment. I mean, in today’s world, we’re all fighting for that ‘entertainment’ time. I think that people are looking for ways to just engage their minds.”
But entertainment is not necessarily efficacy. This is the debate over brain-training: whether skills gained through such games translate to the real-life ability to remember names or where you put your keys, a concept scientists call “far transfer.”
In October 2014, more than 70 psychologists and neuroscientists signed a statement circulated by the Stanford Center on Longevity. “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do,” it read, without naming companies, while acknowledging that more research was needed. Another group of 127 doctors and scientists shot back, arguing that the statement downplayed “a large and growing body” of research that “certain brain exercises have been shown to drive cognitive improvements.”
Several published studies — some by independent researchers, others with Lumos Labs scientists — have tested the cognitive benefits of playing Lumosity and Lumosity-like games, with mixed results. One study that the company likes to tout, published in September in PLOS One and conducted mostly by company employees, involved two groups of people totaling 4,715. Over 10 weeks, an experimental group went through 49 Lumosity exercises and the control group filled out crossword puzzles during daily 15-minute sessions at least five days a week.
After follow-up tests, researchers concluded that, compared to the control group, the Lumosity players showed greater improvements in processing, short-term memory, working memory, problem-solving, and flexible thinking. “These results indicate that a varied training program composed of a number of tasks targeted to different cognitive functions can show transfer to a wide range of untrained measures of cognitive performance,” the researchers wrote.
Lumos Labs acknowledges on its website that the findings are not proof that the skills transfer to tasks in everyday life. Alan Castel, a psychology professor at UCLA who has written about brain games, questioned the results by expressing skepticism about the use of crosswords as a valid control: “There’s no concrete scientific evidence doing a crossword puzzle will improve memory.” Instead, he said, crossword players draw on knowledge they have already built.
Glenn Morrison, Lumos Labs’ director of clinical trials, disagreed, saying that if people believe crosswords help — even if the puzzles actually don’t — that could in fact make them a good placebo.
Castel’s bigger concern is that people are spending time on brain-training games instead of activities that are more likely to improve cognition and general everyday functions. “It’s hard to exercise, it’s hard to eat well, it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep,” he said. “It may seem obvious, and perhaps even too obvious, that people are looking for what’s the latest and greatest thing.”
Lumosity isn’t the only cognitive-training game developer to face regulatory scrutiny. Last year, the FTC accused Carrot Neurotechnology of making unfounded claims about its vision improvement app (the company settled for $150,000). Under another settlement, a Texas company had to stop making claims that the children’s computer game Jungle Rangers had “scientifically proven memory and attention brain training exercises, designed to improve focus, concentration and memory.”
At the same time, Fernandez of SharpBrains noted that not all brain-training games are guilty of exaggerated, ill-supported claims. “We have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he said. “Some people think everything works and some people think nothing works, and the reality, the truth, is something in the middle.”
At Lumos Labs, Berkowitz said that, while the company did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement, the FTC in his view exaggerated the pervasiveness of the problematic ads. “I don’t think it was any significant part of what the marketing has been in the past, and it’s definitely not part of the marketing we’ve done in the last 12 to 18 to 24 months,” he said.
Lumos Labs indeed seems eager to leave the settlement behind. Of its three co-founders, Sarkar has since become board chairman and Scanlon serves in an “unofficial advisory capacity,” according to the company. This year, Berkowitz said, the team wants to branch out into applied skills like language arts and math and improve the social aspect of the games by making it easy for relatives to share their progress. And for the first time, Lumos Labs may design games to improve wellness factors like mindfulness and sleep.
Why those subjects? It all comes back to popular demand. “Those are the things our customers are interested in,” Berkowitz said.
But, as Castel the psychologist cautions, what we think we want is not always what is best. “Not just Lumosity, but anything we think might be helping us — we want to be sure it’s helping us, because it can come at a cost,” he said.