As a neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, Michael Scanlon explored the effects of cognitive training through small-scale experiments on fish and rats. Now, seven years after dropping out to start a company that makes brain games, he can base his research on anonymized data from 25 million people.
Lumosity, the company Scanlon cofounded, makes games that promise to sharpen memory, focus attention, enhance creativity and improve attention. At least by Silicon-Valley terms, it’s been successful. The startup announced a $31.5 million investment led by Discovery Communications last week, bringing its total amount of funding to $70 million. Its mobile app has reached the coveted No. 1 spot in the App Store, and its user base has swelled to 25 million.
Studies about whether playing games like Lumosity's can indeed make people smarter have produced conflicting results. One study, for instance, found that subjects who trained in cognitive tasks improved only at those specific tasks. Others, meanwhile, have showed improvement in fluid intelligence among those who played a brain game.
Lumosity's research branch, Lumos Labs, runs its own studies about how the games impact intelligence. But it also lends assessment tools and, in a few cases, its massive data set to independent researchers who are studying cognitive training. It's running an experiment and a company at the same time and has thus become a small but significant force in the science surrounding its products.
According to a paper the company published in the MENSA Research Journal, after 10 hours of training, subjects improved 10% in memory and 20% in divided attention. At the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in October, it will present further research on the transfer of cognitive training to core underlying cognitive capacities and whether older adults need to train more frequently than younger adults to receive equivalent benefits.
With the exception of the research published in MENSA Research, however, none of its findings have been submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
"We know it’s possible," Scanlon says. "We haven’t submitted enough times to know if we we have a high rate of success or a low rate of success."
Regardless of whether Lumos Labs successfully publishes more studies, Scanlon acknowledges that research produced by organizations without revenue at stake are more likely to be trusted. Which is one reason Lumosity has helped supply about 100 independent researchers with brain games their subjects can play at home instead of at the lab.
Researchers from Stanford, the University of New South Wales and other schools have used Lumosisty brain games in published studies, many of which support Lumosity's findings, and scientists at Harvard and UC Berkeley are among the 25 researchers that are currently incorporating the games into experiments. By default, testing their subjects on Lumosity games also helps cement the company’s position as the most data-equipped researcher in the space.
That's the business genius in Lumosity's research programs: As new understandings emerge about how cognitive training works and in what ways it is or is not effective, it's a good bet that Lumosity will be the first to arrive with updated games.
"The product is informing the science, which then turns back into the product," Scanlon says. "Not all companies have the option of having their R&D and business models in such alignment."
[Image: Flickr user Louis du Mont]