Families & the Community

DeVos-Supported ‘Brain-Performance’ Company Loses Appeal Over Misleading Advertising

By Benjamin Herold — June 20, 2018 4 min read
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A controversial “neurofeedback” company that has received significant financial investment from the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos has agreed to stop making questionable claims about its treatments for conditions such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression.

Last August, Education Week reported that an investigation by an advertising industry self-regulatory group had concluded with recommendations that the company, called Neurocore, stop making a wide range of unsupported and misleading advertising claims.

Neurocore appealed the decision.

On Wednesday, that appeal was denied.

A panel of the National Advertising Review Board “affirmed an earlier decision that found Neurocore LLC, operator of Neurocore Brain Performance Centers, could not support quantified ‘outcome’ claims,’” according to a statement released by the group, which is administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Among the panel’s recommendations was that Neurocore discontinue many of its ads touting quantified positive outcomes for patients, and that the company discontinue advertising testimonials featuring clients saying that Neurocore treatments reduced or eliminated their need for medication.

According to a company statement included in the group’s final decision, Neurocore said it “will comply with the NARB panel’s recommendations.”

Company CEO Mark Murrison did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

DeVos a Significant Investor

Officially launched in 2006, Neurocore operates a half-dozen “brain-performance” centers in Michigan and Florida. It claims to treat both adults and children by analyzing their brainwaves and other biological signs, then providing “neurofeedback sessions” through which they can train their brains to function better. A 30-session cycle can cost as much as $2,200.

Betsy DeVos sat on Neurocore’s board from 2009 until December 2016, when she was tapped by President Donald Trump to become the nation’s education secretary. At the time, DeVos reported a family financial stake in the company worth between $5 million and $25 million. Since becoming secretary, DeVos has increased her family’s investment in the company by as much as $5.5 million.

Federal ethics officials signed off on DeVos’s decision to maintain, and then increase, her stake in Neurocore after becoming secretary.

But that hasn’t stopped a rising tide of concerns about the company’s methods and claims.

In July 2017, the National Advertising Division, which is the investigative unit of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council, concluded that evidence presented by Neurocore “was insufficiently reliable to substantiate [the company’s] strong health-related claims.”

Among Neurocore’s questionable claims:

  • “81% of children who come to us on ADHD meds and complete our program are able to reduce or eliminate their use of medications upon program completion.”
  • “Control your anxiety without medication.”
  • “25% reduction in reported symptoms on the autism evaluation checklists.”
  • “Strengthen your brain to fight depression without medication.”
  • “You’ll experience improved memory, as well as better sleep, focus, mood, mental clarity, and overall cognitive performance.”

At the time, Neurocore stood by those claims.

“From the beginning, we have fully and voluntarily cooperated with the NAD to provide extensive support for the statements we make,” Murrison, the company’s CEO, told Education Week. “We have great respect for the NAD, but we disagree with their decision.”

‘Disseminating Truthful and Accurate Information’

After an extensive appeals process, however, the panel that reviewed Neurocore’s case affirmed the original decision.

“Scientific studies on these treatments have shown inconsistent results, and questions have been raised as to the sufficiency of studies that have been conducted,” according to the group’s press release.

The panel noted concern with Neurocore’s practice of advertising the results of internal client assessments as evidence of a “clinically important” reduction of symptoms.

The panel also recommended that Neurocore stop using testimonials, including on YouTube, claiming that its clients “have reduced or eliminated the need for medication for ADHD, anxiety, depression, memory problems, migraines, or sleep disorders.” It recommended that Neurocore clearly disclose in all advertising that clients should consult with their doctors before discontinuing any prescription medication.

And the panel noted that Neurocore had already ceased making some unsupported assertions, including the claim of a “25 percent reduction in reported symptoms on the autism evaluation checklists” and that “the Neurocore program enabled consumers to control anxiety and fight depression without medication.”

In the “advertiser’s statement” included in the NARB decision, Neurocore said it “respects and values the self-regulatory process and appreciates the NARB’s evaluation of Neurocore’s advertising.”

“Neurocore takes pride in being able to offer a viable, non-chemical treatment program for mental and behavioral conditions that impact millions of consumers,” the statement reads.

“But Neurocore also takes pride in disseminating truthful and accurate information to consumers.”

Photo: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is interviewed in her office at the Education Department in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. -- Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.