Special Education

DeVos-Backed Company Questioned on ADHD, Autism

By Benjamin Herold — February 07, 2017 5 min read
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President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of Education 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 Education Week consulted.

“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 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.”

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, Richard DeVos, Jr. , 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 full Senate is expected to vote on DeVos’ nomination early this month. A spokesman for the DeVos family declined to respond to Education Week‘s inquiries about the investment in Neurocore. 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.

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. Rusk declined to comment on whether the commission is looking at companies promoting neurofeedback treatments as part of that effort.

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.

The company says it has worked with more than 10,000 children and adults at eight centers in Michigan and Florida. Neurocore has “no plans to work with K-12 schools,” Murrison said.

Research Still Emerging

On its website, Neurocore made 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 described its treatment as “proven and approved,” saying that 76 percent of users “achieve nonclinical status,” and 90 percent “report improvement.”

The company made 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.”

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.

Murrison, Neurocore’s CEO, 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, according to Murrison.

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.

A Step Back for Science?

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. The federal education law requires states and districts to provide evidence to support their approaches to school intervention and turnaround.

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as DeVos-Backed Company Makes Questionable Claims

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