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Head Games

Lumosity challenges your brain, hoping to make it stronger.

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By Mike Antonucci

If you've had one of those moments when you suddenly can't remember a phone number you've called dozens of times, an industry developed around the concept of brain training might seem like a great idea. But a viable business is one thing, and scientific acceptance is another.

Standing at the intersection is Mike Scanlon, MS '07, co-founder of Lumos Labs, a startup in San Francisco. The marquee product is, which sells subscriptions to online games touted as tools for improving attentiveness, memory and problem solving. Last year investors put in $32.5 million, Lumos Labs' third round of funding. Scanlon says an initial public offering could take place as early as 2013.

The Lumosity games, also available on the iPhone, reflect a number of trends. Mental fitness is joining physical fitness as a priority for aging baby boomers, who anticipate living longer than previous generations. At the same time, the "gamification" of technology—interactive tasks that entertain while they inform or teach—is a hot topic in education, career development and therapeutic medicine.

Moreover, in a puzzle-fond society where Nintendo's Brain Age games have been popular since 2006, Lumosity's offerings can succeed as fun alone. Habits form quickly with diversions such as Memory Matrix, which flashes patterns of scattered blocks on increasingly larger grids. Players then fill in empty grids by matching each pattern.

Media coverage has spotlighted Lumosity's potential, if only because its pairing of business and social visions is so enticing. The business challenge is more straightforward, however, than the health proposition. What proof exists that so-called brain games make minds stronger?

"The hard evidence is not in yet," notes neuroscientist Cris Niell, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, a former Stanford classmate of Scanlon and a member of the Lumos advisory board.

Niell, '95, PhD '04, says his being on the board demonstrates the oversight that goes into "getting everything on a solid empirical basis that can be tested."

Although substantial research remains, Niell says "a lot of the basic science supports the fact that utilizing certain mental capacities will strengthen them." He adds that "there's lots of data that practicing specific tasks, many of which Lumos games are based on, improves performance on subsequent tests of related abilities."

Scanlon's interest in neuroscience was fueled in part by learning that his grandmother had Alzheimer's disease. He notes that his confidence about Lumosity's benefits is reinforced by the data coming in from both regular and casual users, as well as his personal experience with the games. By the end of 2011, the website could claim an average of almost 262,000 visits per day, although the company won't disclose subscribers vs. free trial users.

"Lumosity is grounded in a history of research described in dozens of peer-reviewed articles that show that computerized training can improve cognitive abilities," Scanlon says. "We know that the brain can change and reorganize itself given the right kinds of challenges, and we've seen really positive study results on Lumosity to date."

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