DeVos-Backed Company Makes Questionable Claims on Autism, ADHD

By Benjamin Herold — January 24, 2017 8 min read
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capital Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
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President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the federal Education Department is a major backer of a company claiming its neurofeedback technology can “fix” problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and has “proven and long-lasting” positive effects on children with autism.

Current scientific evidence does not support such claims, according to the clinical guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics and three leading researchers consulted by Education Week.

“It’s misleading the public to say neurofeedback is effective in treating kids with ADHD and autism,” said Nadine Gaab, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston Children’s Hospital and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“It’s still an experimental treatment that needs more rigorous research,” she said.

Launched in 2006, Neurocore is based in Grand Rapids, Mich. That’s also the hometown of billionaire school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to become U.S. Secretary of Education.

DeVos sat on Neurocore’s board from 2009 until November, when she resigned the position to avoid potential conflicts of interest should she be confirmed. As part of her divestiture plan, which has been approved by the federal Office of Government Ethics, DeVos and her husband will maintain an indirect financial interest in the company. On her disclosure forms, DeVos valued that stake at between $5 million and $25 million.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee is scheduled to vote on DeVos’ nomination on Jan. 31. Democrats have unsuccessfully pushed for a second chance to publicly question DeVos, whose plan to shed potential conflicts of interest had not been approved and made public at the time of her Jan. 17 hearing before the committee. Critics have also questioned DeVos’ grasp of federal special education law and commitment to evidence-based science, among other complaints.

A spokesman for the DeVos family declined to respond to Education Week’s inquiries about their investment in Neurocore.

“Currently, questions such as this and others submitted by senators are being answered and will be provided to the committee,” John Truscott, the president and principal of Michigan public-relations firm Truscott Russman, wrote in an email.

The Trump administration did not respond to Education Week‘s request for comment.

Neurocore CEO Mark Murrison defended his company’s work and marketing. He pointed to an emerging body of research in which neurofeedback in general has shown promise, as well as information Neurocore collects from its clients.

“What we provide to our clients truly makes a difference, and our internal outcomes data and testimonials bear that out,” Murrison said in an interview.

An area of interest for the FTC

Over the past two years, the Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on a number of other companies for making unsubstantiated and misleading claims about “brain training” products and services, such as digital learning games.

That work is ongoing, said Michelle Rusk, a lawyer in the FTC’s division of advertising practices. In an interview, Rusk declined to comment on whether the commission is looking at companies promoting neurofeedback treatments as part of that effort. In general, she said, investigating companies claiming to help children with neurological disorders and elderly consumers worried about memory loss remain a priority.

“Autism and ADHD are serious, and we would expect there to be high-quality scientific support for any claim of cognitive benefits in treating those conditions,” Rusk said.

Neurocore’s service is based in part on analyzing clients’ brainwaves and other biological signs, then providing “neurofeedback sessions” through which users can ostensibly train their brains to function better.

A complete 30-session cycle costs $2,200. Neurocore partners with a health-care-lending firm to help clients finance those charges.

The company says it has worked with more than 10,000 children and adults at eight centers in Michigan and Florida. Another site is scheduled to open in Florida next month, and Murrison said he hopes to expand by as many as seven additional centers in the coming year.

Neurocore has “no plans to work with K-12 schools,” he said.

The company does work extensively with children and families.

Questionable claims of effectiveness

On its website, Neurocore makes a number of claims about how its technology can help individuals, including children, with conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, depression, memory loss, migraines, and sleeplessness.

With regard to ADHD, for example, the company repeatedly describes its treatment as “proven and approved,” saying that 76 percent of users “achieve nonclinical status” and 90 percent “report improvement.”

“Overcome ADHD—without drugs,” Neurocore’s website says. “As you or your child progress through our natural treatment for ADHD using biofeedback and neurofeedback, you may find it possible to reduce or even eliminate medication.”

The company makes similar claims with regard to autism, presenting itself as a “drug-free solution to curb the negative behaviors” associated with the condition.

“There is currently no cure for autism, but the symptoms can greatly improve through Neurocore’s proven, natural autism treatment program,” the website says. “Research shows that biofeedback can be an effective treatment.”

Neurocore also claims that users of its neurofeedback training improve their IQ by an average of 12 points.

A “Why It Works” page purports to help potential customers “explore the science and research behind our brain-based program and life-changing results.”

But many of the links direct readers to preliminary studies or popular news articles. The rigorous, independent, peer-reviewed studies referenced are about neurofeedback and biofeedback more generally, not Neurocore specifically.

Murrison, Neurocore’s CEO, said his company “employ[s] protocols demonstrated to be effective in research such as this.”

He acknowledged that there have to date not been any such high-quality studies conducted about Neurocore specifically. The first peer-reviewed study of the company’s outcomes, for clients with anxiety and depression, “should be going to press in the next few months,” he said. Another peer-reviewed study of Neurocore’s impact on clients with ADHD is in the works.

When asked why his company would make direct claims of effectiveness prior to such research being completed and published, Murrison cited internal company data. Neurocore administers surveys to clients in which they self-report on their conditions before and after treatment.

“We’ve been in business for 10 years,” Murrison said. “If we weren’t able to make a difference in people’s lives, we wouldn’t be able to keep serving communities and expanding.”

Neurocore also points to a document from a third-party company called PracticeWise, which indicates that biofeedback has been rated by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a high-quality support for treatment of ADHD.

But that document is not accurate, according to a letter sent by the academy to other companies making similar claims.

The letter, which had not previously been sent to Neurocore, states that the academy’s official position is that “more research is needed” on neurofeedback as a treatment for ADHD. It asks companies using the document referenced by Murrison to support claims of approval from the American Academy of Pediatrics to correct their websites and promotional materials.

A step back for science?

Scientific research frequently lags behind the private sector when it comes to evaluating new commercial applications for new technologies, said Michael Dougherty, a professor of psychology and the director of the Decision, Attention, and Memory Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park.

And innovation isn’t a bad thing, Dougherty said.

The problem, he maintained, is when companies go too far in their marketing.

In 2015, for example, the Federal Trade Commission agreed to a $2 million settlement with Lumos Labs Inc., the creators of Lumosity, a hugely popular suite of computer- and app-based brain-training programs and games. The company had claimed its technology had “the potential to change lives” and was effective at improving children’s working memory and protecting against cognitive impairments associated with attention-deficit disorders and other conditions.

The commission also reached smaller settlements with a number of other brain-training companies. Among them: LearningRx, which the FTC cited for making “false and deceptive claims about improved cognition” for a wide variety of populations, including children with autism and attention-deficit disorders.

As states, districts, and schools across the country seek to implement and adjust to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the question of what kind of evidence companies can use to justify claims of effectiveness will continue to grow in importance.

Given that, it’s worrisome that the country’s new education secretary nominee would remain closely tied to a company that has apparently made exaggerated and misleading claims about its service, said Ken Koedinger, a professor of psychology and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“The department of education has made a lot of progress in the last 10 years or so in trying to help people in the field distinguish snake oil from the real thing,” Koedinger said.

“I’d hate to see a step backwards with respect to the importance of scientific evidence in improving education.”

See also:

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