Billion-Dollar Brain Training Industry a Sham—nothing but Placebo, Study Suggests
For years, scientific studies suggested that smarts were mostly heritable and fixed through young adulthood—nothing one could willfully boost. But some recent studies hint that a segment of smarts, called fluid intelligence—where you use logic and patterns, rather than knowledge, to analyze and solve novel problems—can improve slightly with memory exercises. The alluring finding quickly gave life to a $1 billion brain training industry. This industry, including companies such as Lumosity, Cogmed, and NeuroNation, has since promised everything from higher IQs to the ability to stay sharp through aging. The industry even boasts that it can help users overcome mental impairments from health conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injury, and the side effects of chemotherapy.
Those claims are clearly overblown and have been roundly criticized by scientists, the media, and federal regulators. Earlier this year, Lumosity agreed to pay $2 million to the Federal Trade Commission over claims of deceptive advertising. The FTC said Lumosity “preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline.” In the settlement, the FTC forbid the company from making any such claims that the training could sharpen consumers’ minds in life-altering ways.
But what of the initial research that suggested slight positive effects of such brain training? While brain training companies have publicly taken heat for their hyped-up claims, recent scientific reviews of the literature have largely upheld the initial findings. In fact, a 2015 meta-analysis concluded that the training could increase IQ scores by three to four points.
With a new report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that research might be nearing a blistering rebuff of its own.