Feds Crack Down on False Brain-Training Claims

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

Jan. 7, 2016 -- Lumos Labs, the company behind the popular brain-training web site Lumosity, has agreed to refund subscribers $2 million after making deceptive and "unfounded" claims about its products, the Federal Trade Commission has announced.

"The claims they were making really didn't have adequate science behind them," says Michelle Rusk of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. Rusk was the agency's lead attorney on the case.

The FTC challenged several claims the company made about its products' benefits, including:

  • Better attention and memory
  • Better school performance for students
  • Improvements for people with "chemo fog" -- problems with memory and thinking that can be a side effect of chemotherapy

The agency specifically contested promises that playing the games would translate to real-life benefits.

"They may be able to show with enough practice that you get better at their games, you might get better at similar tasks in a lab setting," Rusk says. "What they haven't shown is that that translates into any benefits in a real-world setting."

The company says the settlement it reached with the FTC will allow it to "move on and continue delivering its research-based cognitive training platform to millions of active and future users." In a written statement, it pledged to continue studying its products and said it remains committed to "moving the science of cognitive training forward."

In addition to returning some money to consumers, the company has to stop making inflated claims about its products, according to the settlement. It also has to notify everyone who signed up for an auto-renewal plan between 2009 and 2016 about the settlement and give them a way to cancel their subscription.

In a December 2014 special report, WebMD examined the science behind brain-training and noted that the booming industry has operated "largely unnoticed by federal regulators."

The FTC's action shows the government is now paying attention. Lumosity is the recognized market leader in the brain-training sphere. At one point, the company said it had 45 million subscribers worldwide.

Besides Lumosity, the FTC has also settled with the company Focus Education, and it won a judgment that bars the company from making unsupported claims about its Jungle Rangers game. The game, which is targeted to kids, was sold to consumers as a way to improve school performance, behavior, and to help children with ADHD.

Rusk says that while she can't discuss ongoing investigations, more actions against brain-training companies are coming.

"It is a priority enforcement area for us," she says.


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SOURCES: Michelle Rusk, senior staff attorney, U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. Prepared Statement, Lumos Labs. Press Release, FTC. U.S. District Court, San Francisco Division: "Complaint for Permanent Injunction and Other Equitable Relief."

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