Can the secrets to human cognition be found in Lumosity’s brain-training games?


Scientists believe answers to some of brain’s most profound mysteries may lie in Lumosity’s gameplay data. (Photo illustration by The Washington Post/Bigstock images)

SAN FRANCISCO — The glossy white coffee cups are moving across the computer screen at a mind-blowing pace. Forty-eight orders, and only two minutes to fill them all. Put cinnamon in one. Two cubes of sugar in another. Make the next one a double-chocolate. Don’t let them spill!

Each month, millions of people from around the globe visit Lumosity.com to try their hand at this “brain training” task and other challenges like it.

As Lumosity’s customers — 60 million and growing — log on day after day, year after year since 2007, the information they generate from their play is collected into a giant repository of data, the world’s largest about how the human brain functions and changes over time. And in an unusual move, the private company is allowing access to academic researchers interested in studying it.

The dataset and the company’s games are so unique and its potential applications so limitless that more than 42 scientists from Harvard, Stanford, Duke and other institutions are now rushing to collaborate with Lumosity in the hopes that it will help them unlock some of the mysteries of the brain.

As more Americans spend more of their lives online, they are leaving digital trails of information that researchers have only just begun to explore.

Google was a pioneer in the field of big data and science a few years ago when it began to publish flu trends based on what people were searching for online. Some of its researchers are now working on a way to pinpoint adverse events with medications based on search data. Facebook, which has more than 1.15 billion active users and whose data team is relatively new, has already published several eyebrow-raising insights into human social networks. The company’s scientists found that the average person is actually 4.74 degrees of separation — rather than six — from any other person.

Most other technology companies with large amounts of information about consumers have also recognized big data as a valuable asset, but they have typically opted to create their own internal analysis teams to try to seek insights in the information. Their goal is usually to try to improve and evolve their own products — and increase their own profit margins.

Much of the initial work with Lumosity’s data aims to confirm or debunk popularly accepted ideas based on past studies, such as how much sleep is needed for a brain to function optimally. But researchers hope that eventually they’ll be able to find patterns or correlations in the numbers that could lead to new insights.

For instance, scientists might be able to use the IP addresses on customers’ computers to create a map. When overlaid with information from government agencies or other sources, they might be able to show whether certain neighborhoods with toxic environments contribute to a higher risk of, say, early Parkinson’s disease or dementia, says Richard Ivry of the University of California at Berkeley.

“Eventually you could begin to predict what can decrease and what can improve cognitive function,” said Ivry, who chairs the psychology department and has written papers about the promise of big data.

In the biomedical realm, researchers have been focused on aggregating and mining all sort of information — such as doctors’ notes, magnetic resonance images and DNA sequences — for possible insights into disease. Recognizing the opportunities, the National Institutes of Health announced last year that it would commit $24 million annually for four years to support the creation of six to eight centers to focus on analysis of complex data sets.

But it is the more massive, global data sets in the hands of Internet companies — that may not have much if anything to do with health care — that could ultimately prove to be the most valuable because they are so diverse in what they track.

While the explosion of information held in databases maintained by private companies has created excitement about new avenues for research, scientists say they’re still in the early stages of coming to an understanding about how to share, protect and interpret such data.

First, there’s the question of accuracy. Since much of a user’s profile, including such vital statistics as age and sex, is entered voluntarily and without any verification, it’s impossible to tell how much of it is true. It’s also possible that multiple people may be sharing a single account, which could lead to unusual data if it was interpreted incorrectly.

From a privacy standpoint, companies such as Lumosity say they use for research purposes only data stripped of identifying information; but since a customer’s protections aren’t clearly defined under law, consumer advocates worry that there’s potential for abuse. On May 1, the White House released a report calling for stronger privacy laws to protect against mass data collection by businesses and others.

The working group that drafted the report wrote that big data makes unexpected discoveries and innovations possible. But it also warned that “these capabilities, most of which are not visible or available to the average consumer, also create an asymmetry of power between those who hold the data and those who intentionally or inadvertently supply it.”

Insights on sleep and alcohol

Lumosity’s games are modeled after old-school arcade games in style and feel, but they are designed by neuroscientists for a radically different purpose: brain training.

The effectiveness of computer games on boosting brain power is a subject of much debate. One prominent paper concluded that while the games may yield improvements in the tasks at hand, they don’t actually increase raw intelligence or unrelated skills. Despite that, the idea that the brain is constantly evolving rather than something that is fixed in your DNA like eye color has enamored the public, giving rise to a $1 billion industry.

Based in the city’s old warehouse district here, Lumosity offers more than 40 multilevel games that are based strongly on recognized psychological tests such as those that assess divided attention or task switching. The nine-year-old, privately held company has said that it has made tens of millions off its subscription fees (typically $14.95 a month).

Players can select the brain attribute that they want to exercise, such as memory, attention, speed, flexibility or problem solving, or they can let the program choose for them. The game Train of Thought, for instance, requires players to operate switches in a railroad network to get trains to their destination as quickly as possible, a task that the company says helps address attention issues and the ability to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. Raindrops, a game that involves solving simple math problems before the water hits the ground, works on mental calculations.

Each interaction a user has with Lumosity — such as a response to an arithmetic question, for example, or a click that places chocolate in a customer’s order in the coffee cup game — is logged in the company’s database. Many of Lumosity’s users also fill out survey information about basic demographics and lifestyle choices. All of that data, minus names and other personally identifiable information, is available for researchers to query. Academics interested in the data must apply to Lumosity’s research team, which reviews the proposals for their scientific merit and other criteria.

Among the insights that scientists have gleaned from the growing datasets is the intriguing finding that the optimal amount of sleep may be seven hours — not the popularly perceived eight or more, according to a peer-reviewed paper co-published by Lumosity scientists and P. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry at the Duke University Medical Center and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

“What we saw was a very definitive relationship between the amount of sleep people were reporting and their cognitive performance. There was a peak at seven hours, and it fell off at both directions pretty severely,” said Joe Hardy, vice president of research and development for Lumosity.

The paper’s authors also discovered something surprising about alcohol consumption: People who had one or two drinks a day did better than those who abstained. The scientists did not offer definitive reasons why this would be the case but surmised that “increased social and cognitive engagement” among those who drink could be a factor in their doing better at brain games.

There were also some thought-provoking findings about aging. While scientists have long known that a person’s cognitive functions decline as we age, the study was able to differentiate which skills you start to lose in what decade of life. In your 20s, for instance, spatial and working memory (which is related to how you visualize objects or your environment) start to decline. In your 30s, it’s math. And in your 50s, verbal fluency (a test that involves saying as many words as you can think of that are in a category or that begin with a certain sound).

Michael Weiner, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco who focuses on Alzheimer’s disease, is using Lumosity data to try to identify people who might be at risk for the condition or other mental problems as they grow older.

He’s working with the company’s longitudinal data about people who play some of the memory games. Only about 16 percent of people with Alzheimer’s have a gene that is known to be associated with it, so scientists have been looking for other ways to identify those who may be at risk, he said. He said part of the trick in working with big data is figuring out what to look for.

“There is so much information that it’s not possible to just take it all. It’s like if someone offered you all the food in all the restaurants in the United States at once. Well, we’re just starting off with plain pizza, and that’s already pretty interesting,” he said.

Ariana Eunjung Cha is a national reporter for the Post. She has previously served as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Beijing, Shanghai and San Francisco, a correspondent in Baghdad and as a tech reporter based in Washington.
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