Despite all the noise around brain training, we must be careful not to confuse commerce with science. It is important to remember that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates marketing claims and communications in the United States, issues legal rulings against specific commercial behaviors.
In this recent ruling, the FTC identified several deceptive practices by Lumosity’s marketing communications, on the basis of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which “requires that advertisers have a reasonable basis to support their express and implied advertising claims before they are disseminated to the public and to ensure that such claims are truthful and non-deceptive”.
Let’s discuss what might be appropriate commercial behavior in the emerging market of cognitive training; in which we only really have “first generation” products so far.
What brain training does, and doesn’t
Cognitive training can build the capacity of specifically trained cognitive functions. That is not in dispute. Both of the recent scientific “consensus statements” (see below) agree with that. Sometimes this improved function assists closely related abilities (near transfer), but this happens in highly personalized ways, and is not specifically replicable across populations. Companies producing “Brain Training” solutions need to be aware of not overhyping the transfer effect or the regulators will catch up with them, as they should.
There is much hype and hope associated with brain games. Worse still, there is a common misunderstanding of the transfer effect. This is the source of most of the controversy. Often cognitive functions are trained in the hope that a “transfer effect” will occur – it may, but this is not guaranteed, and if it does it is heterogeneous. Brain training is NOT a “magic pill”, or a “general solution“. It needs to be properly targeted, and part of a broader brain fitness puzzle.
A number of companies seem to be following a more careful and deliberate approach, some even going as far as pursuing approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for specific brain training protocols to help treat very specific conditions such as ADHD. [Note the words “help treat” (an adjunct) not “cure”]. This means they have agreed to rigorous 3rd party testing of a SPECIFIC digital intervention to help treat a SPECIFIC condition. If the scientific testing is successful, they will have highly specific commercial claims to make, and in ways that can significantly improve educational and health outcomes. One of them, Akili Interactive Labs, just raised $30.5 million.
Other brain training companies have not gone as far as making medical claims (or getting FDA approval) but have invested considerable resources in the science behind their solutions. Posit Science has developed several partnerships with major institutions such as AARP and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety building on the ACTIVE study, an independent multi-site randomized controlled trial of 2,802 older adults, with 5 and 10 year follow ups, and many other credible studies. Education giant Pearson acquired a developer of working memory training with a significant number of published trials and offers their customers a detailed statement of claims.
The role of regulation: Balancing free markets and consumer rights
None of the companies mentioned above are perfect, nor will any particular product be, but they do offer examples of good commercial behavior by putting forward clear language and strong references to back their claims. This provides the consumer with substantial information to make an informed judgement. Consumers should of course take nothing at face value and make their own critical evaluations as to the appropriateness, or not, of any product for their highly personalized needs.
Many other companies do not have a high weight of research behind their offerings and, like many businesses in other markets, have let their marketing get ahead of them. Brain training is not unique, just take a walk through your local pharmacy or supermarket and see how many unproven products they offer. Regulatory processes are in place to strike a balance between free markets and consumer rights, as follows:
- Priority 1: Unsafe products need regulation to prevent them from entering the market and endangering consumers.
- Priority 2: Commercially deceptive conduct (including advertising) needs regulation to help protect consumers.
- Priority 3: The consumer should be free to purchase safe, non-deceptive products at will, even if their efficacy is scientifically uncertain. That’s an important “buyer beware” personal right that should not be regulated.
We should not have a problem with consumers choosing to use any brain training software, as the FTC did not identify any safety issues. Depending on your personal preferences they might be reasonable products to use, or not. That’s your choice.
We should have a problem with deceptive conduct and I welcome the FTC’s decision on this. But we should not impinge too heavily on consumer rights by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, we do need to better risk-manage the baby in the bath as we incrementally figure out better and better ways to clean the baby.
Free markets are needed, and regulators (e.g. the FTC) are also needed. Independent and credentialed consumer advice bureaus can also be a helpful thing to assist people explore their personal needs and to navigate claims.
In 2014, 75 scientists signed a strong statement that was widely promoted as “there is a scientific consensus that brain training doesn’t work”. But they went too far in their negative and broad claims, so 133 other scientists wrote an open letter arguing that a substantial body of evidence demonstrates that certain cognitive training regimens can work.
I hope this emerging industry, which has great potential in a variety of different areas and applications, becomes mature enough to begin to self-regulate. We’ll see.
– Steve Zanon is the Founder of Proactive Ageing (a consulting firm in Australia) and a longstanding participant in SharpBrains Virtual Summits (has participated in all!). He acknowledges having no financial stake in any brain training hardware or software provider.
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