Bahar Gholipour
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Featured
05 January

Lumos Labs, the company behind the "brain training" program Lumosity has agreed to pay $2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived consumers.

For 10 years, the Lumosity program was marketed to consumers and its 70 million users as a way to keep their brain sharp and healthy, despite a lack of conclusive scientific evidence for such claims.

"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 statement. "But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads."

Questions about the validity of claims about brain games have piled up in recent years. In 2014, a group of about 70 neuroscientists released an open letter warning that claims about positive effects of brain games on people's cognitive skills and brain health are not based on actual science.

Lumosity is one of the most well-known brain training products in an industry that's been forecasted to reach $6 billion in 2020. The program includes more than 40 games, each of them purportedly targeting a specific brain area. The company sold subscriptions for these games, with options ranging from monthly payments of $14.95 to lifetime memberships for $299.95.

According to the FTC's complaint, the company claimed that training with these games for a recommended three to four times a week "will improve performance on everyday tasks; will improve school, work, and athletic performance; will delay age-related decline in memory and protect against other age-related conditions such as mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease; and will reduce cognitive impairment associated with the side effects of chemotherapy, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Turner syndrome, stroke, and other health conditions."

The FTC also alleged that some consumer testimonials on the Lumosity website had been solicited through contests that promised significant prizes, including a free iPad and a round-trip to San Francisco.

In a statement to NBC News, Lumos Labs defended its products and said the settlement does not pertain to "the rigor of our research or the quality of the products." The company said it has made "strong contributions to the scientific community and will not change its focus: "We remain committed to moving the science of cognitive training forward and contributing meaningfully to the field's community and body of research."

Under the settlement with the FTC, Lumos Labs has to notify customers who signed up for an auto-renewal plan and provide them a way to cancel their subscription. The settlement requires the company and its co-founders to have "competent and reliable scientific evidence before making future claims about any benefits for real-world performance, age-related decline, or other health conditions."

Featured
22 December 2015

There's a sneaky panda hiding in plain sight in a crowd of unsuspecting snowmen. Can you spot it?

It's harder than it seems. Hungarian artist Dudolf posted this ultimate Where's Wally cartoon on Facebook last Wednesday—since then, it's been shared over 111,000 times. Thousands of people have taken on the challenge to find the panda. For some it took only a few seconds, for others, significantly longer than that.

And some found "a dragon, 2 slippers, a can of pop," but no panda.

Can you find the panda?

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So, why is it so difficult to spot the panda?

The answer lies in how human vision works and the method by which the brain carries out a visual search task. Most of the time we are actually very efficient at detecting unusual features in an image—for example, a red dot in an ocean of black dots would instantly pop out. But the "pop out" effect only works when the difference is in only one property, such as color or shape or size.

In other instances—in which the unusual feature shares some similarities to the rest of the image—the pop out effect breaks down and the task becomes significantly harder.

Here, the panda is obviously not a snowman, but it has the same black and white color, and more or less the same shape. So now that you can't rely on brain mechanisms behind the pop out effect, you have to actively search the image for the panda. That means, you have to scan the image in a serial manner until you find it. Sadly, there's no way around it. And for those people who found the panda in only few seconds, chances are they were just lucky to first lay their eyes where the panda happens to be.

Now, how about this cat hiding among the flock of owls?

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Featured
18 November 2015

What if it were possible to taste chocolate in pure tasteless water? Or candy in raw broccoli? After all, like all other perceptions, taste doesn't really exist outside you. It's made in your brain.

In a new study scientists show this by switching on specific neurons in the brains of mice and making the animals perceive a sweet or bitter taste when drinking plain water. Just how sweet a taste they felt is hard to tell, but they at least behaved as if they were having sugar water (which is something they really love).

The five basic tastes do start out on the tongue, when flavor chemicals in food activate their corresponding receptors. But the signals are then sent to the brain, where each taste is picked up by specific groups of neurons, located next to each other in their own neighborhoods of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, essentially forming a gustatory map in the brain.

"Taste, the way you and I think of it, is ultimately in the brain," said neuroscientist Charles Zuker, professor of biochemistry at Columbia University's Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. "Dedicated taste receptors in the tongue detect sweet or bitter and so on, but it's the brain that affords meaning to these chemicals."

The sense of taste has responsibilities beyond making chocolate one of the greatest pleasures in life. Sweet and bitter tastes, for example, help humans and other animals identify energy-rich nutrients and thrive and stop them from eating deadly toxic substances.

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Zuker and his colleagues have previously shown how information from each class of taste receptors in the tongue travels through multiple neural areas to ultimately reach the corresponding groups of neurons organized in a spatial map in the primary gustatory cortex of the brain.

In the new study, the researchers manipulated these neurons in mice using optogenetics, a method which allows them to activate or switch off specific neurons with light.

They first trained mice to lap water on command in response to a visual cue. When they stimulated the neurons that are in charge of bitter taste, the mice took a sip but behaved as if the water had a bitter taste. The animals tried to clean their mouth off the bitter taste and were not eager to take another sip. Remember, the water was still normal tasteless water.

Then the scientists turned on the neurons for sweetness. They expected that even a mildly satiated mouse would become interested in lapping more water during stimulation of those neurons. And that was exactly what they saw.

The findings, published today in Nature, further shows that taste qualities are processed by separate neuronal groups in the cortex, and suggest that the sense of taste is hardwired in the brain, the researchers said.

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