When Mike Scanlon ’01 moved to California after college to study neuroscience at Stanford, he got in touch with Kunal Sarkar ’00, then living in San Francisco and working at a private-equity firm nearby. The friends got together often and talked about an intriguing area of Scanlon’s studies: how to take advantage of the brain’s plasticity to improve cognitive abilities. In 2005, Sarkar quit his job and Scanlon took a leave of absence from Stanford to create a palette of online games said to help sharpen memory, attention, and other brain functions.
Today their company, Lumosity (co-founded with Dave Drescher), has 67 million registered users. Since its launch in 2007, Lumosity’s games have been played more than 2 billion times in 180 countries. Its mobile app, which debuted in 2010, has been downloaded 30 million times.
The games, which adapt to a user’s skill level, test memory, attention, flexibility, and other abilities. Users must solve basic arithmetic problems before raindrops falling from the sky touch the ground; remember the names and food preferences of animated characters ordering meals at a restaurant; and recall the locations and patterns of highlighted tiles within a matrix of squares, among other tasks. Some of the games are free, but a premium service that offers more selection and tracks a user’s progress costs $80 a year.
Does it work? In October, 70 leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists signed a statement about brain-training companies (none are mentioned by name) that says “scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based ‘brain games’ alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease.”
Lumosity says its games are “engineered to train a variety of core cognitive functions.” The company’s research, “as well as that of independent university scientists, has found that Lumosity can improve cognitive abilities when people train as directed on a regular basis,” Scanlon says.
While Lumosity is best known for its brain games, the company also has created software tools to study cognitive performance. Lumosity scientists conduct research and collaborate with academics at 60 labs across the country. “We provide them with free access to Lumosity’s tools,” says Sarkar, who is the company’s CEO. The scientists are studying topics ranging from cognitive impairment in cancer patients to memory loss and the aging process. In December, Lumosity released its first child-focused program, called LumiKids, geared to children ages 2 to 5.