CogniFit is one of many online brain training systems in what is a billion dollar industry. That means a lot of consumers are spending a lot of money for a service that may, or may not, be effective. And that’s the main problem with this consumer service — the science doesn’t support the claims that these brain testing services actually are worth your money. It is a lot like the nutritional supplement dilemma; people spend money on supplements that, later, scientific analysis indicates doesn’t work…..or even turns out to be harmful. As a consumer advocate, we look for honesty and transparency from retailers and CogniFit failed that test…..repeatedly.
Flashing Red Light #1: What is it going to Cost?
One of the first things consumers need to make a purchase decision is the cost. When we tried to ascertain the cost of CogniFit’s services we were confronted by a confusing maze. Apparently, CogniFit won’t share cost information for you unless you agree to register with their site. Effectively, you don’t get to know the cost unless you come in “the door”. Even worse, when we went to the page that allegedly offers cost information, here’s what we found:
So, apparently CogniFit is “free” to signup and take the personalized training up to 4 brain training games (out of 30 brain training games). But unless you register, you are not given access to any pricing. From what we can glean, a subscription to CogniFit costs $19.95 per month. Additionally, you have to earn or purchase “neurons” to play some of the brain games. What are neurons in CogniFit’s world. Apparently, it is akin to winning tickets at your local arcade. It’s a long-used marketing strategy by which consumers are led to feel they are “winning” money even though they are actually spending money. It’s not our favorite type of pricing, as it relies on tricking consumers into spending more than they otherwise would. These neurons will cost you between $5-$100 to purchase.
The bottom line is that CogniFit’s pricing policy is obscured by a registration requirement and is complex. Both are flashing red lights for us. Plus, at $20 per month and additional neuron costs, it is a VERY expensive proposition. So what are you getting for $200+ every year? Read on.
Flashing Red Light #2: Affiliate Marketing
While trying to track down the price, we came across a 2014 Shaklee nutritional supplement promotion that claims that a monthly membership to CogniFit is a $19.95 value. We’ll assume that is true, given that CogniFit hasn’t filed a libel lawsuit against Shaklee. But what is more disturbing than a confirmation of that high price is that CogniFit is aligning itself with a company selling nutritional supplements for brain fitness. This flies in the face of science as there is no compelling evidence that nutritional supplements reduce dementia risk or improve cognitive functions. Reputable information sites, such as WebMD and Mayo Clinic confirm what we’ve reported often on our site: buying nutritional supplements to improve brain function is a waste of your money. The bottom line is that CogniFit’s alliances with nutritional supplement hawkers is very disturbing, as it suggests a disregard to real science. CogniFit asserts that it is no longer involved in this promotion.
Flashing Red Light #3: Claims of scientific evidence
CogniFit, like other brain fitness marketers, claims its brain games improve intelligence and cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and problem solving ability by tapping into your brain’s plasticity — that is, its ability to change. It’s not hard to find plenty of “evidence” to support that brain training does work, but much of it is supplied by the brain games makers themselves. With their investment at stake, there is an obvious conflict of interest here.
Instead, we’ve focused our assessments upon what unbiased neuroscientists — those not working in the brain training program industry — have to say about the effectiveness of this kind of brain training. And, so far, the unbiased scientists are not willing to support CogniFit’s claims. In October, 2014, a group of 73 leading brain scientists released a statement, A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community. This open letter was released jointly by two prestigious institutions, the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.This letter criticized the companies that promote and sell brain training programs for making exaggerated claims and for feeding on the fears of seniors and baby boomers concerned with future cognitive decline. This group of scientists believes more research is needed before such claims can be made.The letter’s conclusion states:
“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.”
CogniFit offers a number of studies in support of its claims. Yet, the titles of these studies suggest that the majority of these tests were done on groups of people with specific brain problems. These studies concluded that software-based brain training helped these groups improve whatever brain function was tested. It doesn’t mean that a commercially available brain training program will yield similar improvement in people with normal brain function. According to Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, the answer is “not yet”. He observes that most brain training studies are, in fact, done on a select group of people with a specific brain problem, e.g, people with schizophrenia or seniors with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). In other words, there’s not enough evidence to show that cognitively healthy people will gain any positive mental improvement with brain training. He, as other scientists, are hopeful, but he’s intellectually honest enough to say we aren’t there yet.
Novella’s findings are affirmed by the University of California, Berkeley Wellness newsletter. In an article by Dr. John Swartzberg, he characterizes the brain training industry as something like “the Wild West”. Like us, he worries about how brain training is beginning to be marketed like nutritional supplements. And he, too, cites the Consensus Report which found:
- Many claims are “exaggerated and misleading” and exploit the anxiety of healthy older adults worried about memory loss. There’s no convincing evidence that any brain training programs will improve general cognitive abilities or help prevent or treat dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
- The companies often boast that their programs are designed by famous scientists and supported by solid research, but most of the studies they cite are small, short, and poorly designed, and many are conducted by researchers with financial interests in the products. The findings are often only tangentially related to the advertised claims. What’s more, it’s unclear whether any improvements in skills practiced in brain games would persist until even the next day or carry over to other cognitive tasks and daily living.
- The best brain-health advice, based largely on observational findings, is to lead a physically active, intellectually challenging, and socially engaged life, the authors wisely concluded. In particular, much research shows that physical exercise is a moderately effective way to maintain and even improve brain fitness (though even this is far from certain—a recent Cochrane review of 12 clinical trials actually found no convincing evidence that aerobic exercise improves mental function in cognitively healthy older people). As the report pointed out, “If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it.”
Many brain-training companies cite an “ACTIVE” study, which was Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study was funded by the US National Institute on Aging. It was the first large-scale trial to show that computerized brain training improves cognitive function in older adults. Study participants were on average 74 years old and were in good health. Importantly, this study was not designed to address dementia.
Yet, this study is contradicted by a far more credible study called the Brain Test Britain study . It is one of the largest computer-based brain training study so far with over 13,000 participants completing it. Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 80 with the average age being 43. Participants were divided into three groups — reasoning tasks, non-reasoning tasks, and a control group. Even though the Brain Test Britain study found that people who played brain training games got better at those specific games, Dr. Adrian Owen, a designer of the study, said, “The result is crystal clear. Brain training is only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference.” The Brain Test Britain study results were published in the prestigious science journal Nature.
The take away is that while scientists now know that the brain remains malleable, even in old age, there’s no consensus that online brain games offer any tangible cognitive benefits. While it’s certainly possible that some sort of cognitive training will boost aging brains, more and better research will be needed to prove it. For now, the marketing of most of these programs is way out in front of the science. A recent survey of the various studies was published recently that echoes the fact that it is simply too early to know whether brain training is any more effective than nutritional supplements. It concludes that many studies pertaining to provide evidence, both for and against the brain-trainers claim, suffer from sample size problems, low population representation and inconsistent methodology. Additionally, a number of theorists argue the brain trainers claim is fundamentally flawed due to the approximation of an individual’s cognitive reserve often being measured indirectly by proxy of IQ and other epidemiological constructs, such as education or social-economic status.
Flashing Red Light #4: U.S. Consumers are Wary
CogniFit isn’t a publicly-traded company so its financials are not disclosed. So we looked at its web-traffic to see if consumers are buying into the company’s representations. Based upon traffic analysis at Alexa.com, CogniFit’s main website ranks at about 400,000 in the U.S. (by comparison, SDCAN’s website ranks at about 100,000, meaning SDCAN draws significantly more traffic than CogniFit in the U.S.) Other brain-training sites like Lumosity (987) and BrainHQ (25,000) appear to generate far more web-traffic than CogniFit. So it wouldn’t appear that U.S. consumers are flocking to CogniFit. It would appear much of its web-traffic is from other countries.
Our bottom line continues to be that it is too early for anyone to credibly claim that brain training has been scientifically validated. This industry seizes upon preliminary findings, much like the nutritional supplement industry does, only to discover a few years later that the findings aren’t confirmed. In the meantime, consumers have spent billions of dollars flushing down overpriced placebos. CogniFit’s pricing and openness policies need to be substantially revised if consumers are ever to feel comfortable doing business with it.