MALE ACTOR:  Going to the gym is easy—you can work out any part of your body.  But they don’t really have a machine for your brain.  Lumosity is all these great exercises, all based on neuroscience, but they just feel like games.  It’s a fun workout, and my brain feels great.  

VOICE OVER:  Any brain can get better, and can help.  It’s like a personal trainer for your brain, improving your performance with the science of neuroplasticity, but in a way that just feels like games.  Start training with right now and discover what your brain can do.

Not so fast, says the Federal Trade Commission.  This is just one of many ads for “brain training” program Lumosity that are now causing a major migraine for Lumosity creator Lumos Labs, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in San Francisco, California.  Last week the FTC sued Lumos Labs in the US District Court for the Northern District of California alleging that the ads for Lumosity violate Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, and Section 12, which prohibits the dissemination of any false advertisement in or affecting commerce.

According to the complaint, the Lumosity program includes forty games that purportedly target specific areas of the brain that users are recommended to train with for ten to fifteen minutes for several days per week.  The FTC’s chief complaint was that the advertisements for Lumosity make false or unsubstantiated claims that training with the program improves one’s real-world performance, age-related conditions, and other health conditions.  The FTC further alleged Lumos Labs falsely represented that scientific studies prove the real-world benefits of training with Lumosity and failed to disclose that online testimonials were solicited as part of a contest that included prizes such as a free iPad and a trip to San Francisco.  (The FTC apparently took no issue with the demonstrably false claim in the above ad that going to the gym is “easy”).

The same day the complaint was filed, the FTC and Lumos Labs reached a settlement whereby Lumos Labs agreed to pay $2 million in redress and to notify subscribers of the settlement and allow them to easily cancel their auto-renewal subscription to the program.  “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press release.  “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”  The proposed stipulated final judgment and order further prohibits Lumos Labs from making future claims about the real-world, age-related, and health benefits of training with Lumosity without “competent and reliable scientific evidence” backing such claims.

Lumosity is just one of many “brain training” programs to hit the market in recent years in the wake of the development of phone apps and growing concern over memory loss, reduced attention span, and other forms of cognitive deterioration.  But the science proving actual cognitive benefits from training with such programs has yet to materialize, and a few studies have found that the programs do little more than improve performance on the programs themselves.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as the creators are not making claims of actual cognitive benefits.  The story of Lumosity is a great reminder for all creators of consumer products—before stuffing your ads with phrases like “the science of neuroplasticity,” make sure you have competent and reliable scientific evidence on your side.