By Alejandro Zorrilal Cruz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cognitive claims remain a top priority for the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) as the Commission continues to target claims that dietary supplements or learning programs can improve cognitive performance. The FTC just announced a proposed settlement with LearningRx Franchise Corp. (“LearningRx”) concerning the company’s marketing of its “brain training” programs. We have blogged about learning claims before, including the Word Smart case and Lumosity settlement. We have also noted when Chairwoman Ramirez stated that these type of claims were becoming a higher priority for the FTC.

This time the FTC has targeted LearningRx, a provider of “brain training” programs with more than 80 LearningRx centers franchised in 25 states. LearningRx centers offer one-on-one cognitive training, purported to correct weak or underdeveloped cognitive learning skills. The complaint also named the company’s CEO Dr. Ken Gibbons.

According to the FTC’s complaint, however, LearningRx could not back up its claims about the effectiveness of its programs. Specifically, the FTC noted that LearningRx advertised that its programs “raise IQ an average of 15 points in 12 weeks, and 20 points in 24 weeks.” The company tied its improvements in IQ to improved earnings for its students.

The complaint further alleges that LearningRx claimed its programs dramatically improved serious health conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), autism, and dementia. One particular claim stated that teens with ADHD who underwent cognitive skills training “shed their [ADHD] label” and that 40 percent of those taking ADHD medication were able to reduce their dosage or able to quit taking medication altogether after training. The company claimed its training was 10 times more effective than tutoring.

LearningRx also made claims about the success of its programs in treating cognition impairment in individuals who had suffered concussions, strokes, and/or traumatic brain injuries. The programs were also claimed to improved athletic performance.

Furthermore, the complaint states that LearningRx claimed its results were “clinically proven, scientifically measurable and permanent.” However, the FTC found that these claims were not clinically proven, lacked substantiation, and were therefore deceptive and misleading.

The FTC also alleged that LearningRx provided the “means and instrumentalities” to its franchisees to deceive the public by providing advertising material to the franchisees for dissemination to consumers.

The proposed settlement order imposes a $4 million judgment against the company, which will be suspended upon the payment of $200,000 as disgorgement of ill-gotten gains.

The proposed order also prohibits the company from making any claims that their programs improve performance at work or in athletics or that they reduce cognitive impairment of individuals with health conditions, unless the claims are not misleading and substantiated by human clinical testing.

The proposed order also prohibits LearningRx from claiming their programs can improve academic performance unless the representation is supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence based on standards generally accepted in the relevant scientific fields.

As this enforcement action demonstrates, the FTC has clearly and repeatedly expressed its position that educational or learning benefit claims require competent and reliable scientific evidence, and the FTC clearly views such claims skeptically. Indeed, last year the FTC brought several cases against the marketers of dietary supplements over misleading claims that the supplements were clinically proven to significantly improve memory, mood, and other cognitive functions.

So if you are in the cognitive development or improvement business, we hope you’ve learned something. To avoid an FTC enforcement action, carefully analyze your claims and make sure your substantiation both fits your claims and are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence – the kind experts in the learning field would agree show the claims are supported.