Betsy Devos backs a company that claims to treat ADHD with dubious scientific support

DeVos holds millions of dollars in Neurocore.
DeVos holds millions of dollars in Neurocore.
Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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If a company’s claims seem too good to be true, there’s a good chance they are.

Neurocore LLC is a Florida-based company that says it can dramatically improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and ADHD without drugs. On Aug. 8, the National Advertising Division, a branch of the Better Business Bureau, recommended that Neurocore remove these claims from its website.

Neurocore offers a non-invasive treatment called neuroregulation. Patients (either children or adults) come into one of the company’s centers (currently just in Michigan and Florida), and don a tight cap with sensors that pick up electrical activity in their brains. Then they’re shown images of their brains, and which regions are working—or at least which are firing neurons, which is an indirect measure of activity—as they watch videos intended to help them relax or focus more. As the patient’s’ neurological activity appears the change, so does the movie, until the patient can control their brain responses. The idea is that if patients can see parts of their brain that are over- or under-active at different times, they can learn to self-correct.

But to put it politely, the science behind Neurocore’s methods is sketchy at best. In addition to the claims on their website, which include “90% report fewer or less frequent ADHD symptoms” the company published results from a study in March of 2017 in the journal NeuroRegulation. This work involved almost 350 adults and children who went through Neurocore’s treatment from October to July of 2016. In the study, 80% of people who had symptoms of anxiety and depression showed “clinically important” improvement.

It’s unclear how this is different from regular improvement. More importantly, this study does not meet the bar for scientific research. First, there’s no control group, or comparison to other treatments for anxiety or depression. Patients could be experiencing a placebo effect, or could be doing no better or even worse than people receiving other treatments. More worryingly, all of the authors on this paper are paid employees at Neurocore. Although NeuroRegulation appears to be peer-reviewed, the conflict of interest is glaringly obvious.

This isn’t to say the technology is definitively a sham. It’s just that the existing data don’t justify treatment that costs roughly $2,000 out of pocket. Indeed, the science is so weak that insurance companies won’t cover it, and most researchers don’t recommend it. L. Eugene Arnold, psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Ohio State University who is running a controlled, blinded study on the benefits of neuroregulation told the New York Times (paywall) that Neurocore exaggerates the promise of these treatments.

Particularly troubling is that Betsy DeVos, the US secretary for education, is a partial owner of the company; although she resigned from the board when she took on her current government position, she still holds a stake in the company estimated to be valued at somewhere between from $5 million to $25 million, according to the Times (paywall).

“Why does our Secretary of Education, arguably the foremost educator in the country, endorse something when there’s no evidence?” Ulrich Boser, a senior researcher at the Center for American Progress, said in a video for the Washington Post. Boser himself tested out Neurocore as part of his research for book Learn Better. “We have an administration that is very loose with the facts, very loose with the details, and that’s particularly true when it comes to profits…from that lens, I think [Neurocore] provides more evidence around the way this administration looks at facts [and] looks at social policy,” he said.

As Business Insider reports, Neurocore’s CEO Mark Murrison plans to appeal the National Advertising Division’s recommendation to remove their claims, although technically the company doesn’t have to take down anything just yet.

“Our work has improved the lives of thousands of people who seek help for anxiety, depression, ADHD and other mental or behavioral conditions,” Murrison, said in an email. “Neurocore is proud of what we do and we stand behind the outcomes we deliver to improve people’s lives.”

This story has been updated to include a response from Neurocore.