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Inquirer emphasizes alternatives to brain games like Lumosity

Rating

4 Star

Can brain games change behaviors long term?

Our Review Summary

brain fitnessThis story raises the issue of whether so-called “brain games,” like Lumosity, actually do what they’re advertised as doing — improving brain function. The story includes comments from sources both supporting and opposing these games and cites authoritative evaluations of the evidence. It also includes an extensive list of alternative approaches that may be better than games for improving cognitive function.

However, the story offers little real data to underpin the coverage, only anecdotes. And while it does raise most of the appropriate questions about such programs, readers expecting a definitive answer, or at least a sampling of existing data, are going to be disappointed. Then again, many readers will likely be satisfied to learn the bottom-line conclusions that trustworthy third parties have drawn regarding these games. And for those readers, this story provides a valuable service.

 

Why This Matters

The idea that a computer-driven game can enhance cognition and brain function is enticing and, to some extent, seems to make sense. Mental exercises would seem to strengthen the brain.  But the brain isn’t a muscle and, so far, it isn’t known whether such efforts will pay off. With the apparent increasing rate of patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementias in the U.S., an easy way to delay, or even halt, that mental deterioration would be a great advance for both personal and public health.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story doesn’t mention the costs for such brain games. It mentions the product Lumosity specifically at several points but doesn’t say what it costs. While there is a free membership to Lumosity, it is limited and the full program requires paid membership — $14.95/month, or $6.95/month with a one-year commitment, $4.95/month for a two-year commitment, or a one-time payment of $299.95, based on some Internet sources. Lumosity requires that viewers create an account before they reach the company’s payment information. The story does mention that the brain-game industry “is expected to hit $6 billion a year by 2020.” Six billion dollars a year is impressive for games that are potentially no more effective than a placebo and a distraction from more effective brain stimulation.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

This is a borderline Not Satisfactory. The story references a mixed bag of studies, some of which are “promising” while others indicate the games “offer little more than recreation.” But what sorts of benefits do the promising studies show on what outcomes? There are few details. The story does describe one such study that resulted in enhanced reading comprehension and “discipline,” but no numbers are provided to document the benefits.

More generally, the story does make it clear that there is no definitive evidence supporting a benefit from these games. And it points out that the writer asked Lumosity for the independent research backing its claims of improvements but the company failed to provide it. That’s good journalism, but surely there are other brain game studies that could have been referenced to provide context. The story discusses one clinical trial underway but adds that results are a year away.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The story mentions no harms from these brain games, but such harms are difficult to imagine. The chief harms we can think of are that these games could reinforce sedentary behavior, when in fact the opposite — exercise — is likely to have a bigger beneficial impact on brain function. But we won’t penalize the story for not explicitly stating this — we’ll rule it Not Applicable.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

This story does a good job of presenting the quality of evidence available, which is fairly poor, but that isn’t the story’s fault.  It mentions multiple research projects that have investigated short-term results, some of which appeared promising, but rightly points out that those results may not translate into improved brain function and healthier behavior in the long run. It also juxtaposes the existing research with anecdotal comments from college students involved in some projects.  It does so while clearly presenting them as individual opinions — not data.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story does not commit disease-mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The Inquirer’s story uses information from multiple sources.  There is no apparent conflict of interest.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story does a thorough job of exploring alternatives. First, it mentions that studies have shown that physical activity improves cognitive function, and second, it suggests that doing cognitively challenging things like learning a language or taking music lessons should not be replaced by computer-driven brain games. The story also includes a box highlighting beneficial factors including exercise, staying socially and intellectually active, healthy diet, getting good sleep, and keeping your heart healthy.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

We’ll give this one a satisfactory rating since it mentions Lumosity and calls it a “popular brain game,”  implying widespread availability. Through an extensive television advertising program, this game is indeed widely known. However, the story focuses only on Lumosity, when certainly there are other alternative products, given that this is supposed to be a $6 billion industry in half a decade.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

Brain games are not novel, but the story establishes what is new here, which is the National Cancer Institute-sponsored research designed to generate more definitive evidence about the benefits of such games.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story doesn’t rely on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 9 Satisfactory

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