By Benjamin Herold
August 7, 2017
Since being confirmed as U.S. secretary of education in February, Betsy DeVos has significantly increased her family’s financial stake in a company that makes questionable claims about its treatment for conditions such as anxiety, autism, depression, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The new investments in the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Neurocore could total as much as $5.5 million. The investments were reported on two separate financial disclosure forms that DeVos filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in April and June. That office certified both forms. The transactions could reflect purchases made either by DeVos herself or by an immediate family member.
The moves raise new ethical questions for the education secretary and prompt fresh worries from some researchers about DeVos’s commitment to rigorous scientific research.
Neurocore purports to treat patients by analyzing their brainwaves and other biological signs, then providing “neurofeedback sessions” through which they can train their brains to function better. The company often uses such treatments with both adults and children. It charges as much as $2,200 for a 30-session cycle.
Overall, the evidence base for neurofeedback is weak, experts say.
Still, Neurocore has claimed that its technology can “fix” problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and has “proven and long-lasting” positive effects on children with autism. In January, Education Week reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics and leading researchers all said there was limited evidence to support such assertions.
Now, the company is touting new research on its website. In a March press release, for example, Neurocore CEO Mark Murrison said a recently published study showed that Neurocore’s technology is a “viable treatment option for people dealing with anxiety or depression.”
Three experts consulted by Education Week all questioned the legitimacy of such claims, citing serious flaws with the study’s design that prevented it from generating credible evidence.
“They’re misleading, at best,” said Rebecca A. Maynard, a professor of education and social policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
“It bothers me to see anyone misusing evidence and promoting things that mislead the public,” said Maynard, a former commissioner at the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the federal education department that DeVos now heads.
New Ethics Questions for DeVos
Secretary DeVos and the Education Department did not respond to questions about why she or one of her family members increased their stake in Neurocore, whether she believes the company’s treatments are effective, and if the increased stake will present new conflicts with her responsibilities as education secretary.
The new investments were likely made via the Windquest Group, a private-equity firm headed by DeVos’s husband, Richard DeVos Jr. An official from the Windquest Group wrote via email that the Education Department had referred questions about DeVos’s investment in Neurocore to him. He did not respond to those questions.
DeVos herself was previously a chair at Windquest, but resigned that position after she was confirmed as education secretary. DeVos was able to maintain her financial stake in Windquest, and thus in Neurocore, according to the terms of her January divestiture agreement with the Office of Government Ethics.
Neurocore CEO Mark Murrison provided a statement via email.
“Neurocore is proud of what we do and we stand behind the outcomes we deliver to improve people’s lives,” Murrison wrote. “Our work has improved the lives of thousands of people who seek help for anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental or behavioral conditions and we look forward to continuing to provide that help.”
Originally launched in 2006, Neurocore currently operates six centers in Michigan and two in Florida, according to its website. The company says it has worked with more than 10,000 children and adults.
DeVos sat on the company’s board from 2009 until last November. In January, when she was President Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, she reported a financial stake in the company worth between $5 million and $25 million.
The details of DeVos’s new investments in Neurocore are as follows:
- An April 7, 2017 purchase valued at between $1,000,001 and $5,000,000 (see disclosure form)
- A June 13, 2017 purchase valued at between $250,001 and $500,000 (see disclosure form)
Raising her financial stake in Neurocore does not cross any clear ethical lines, and federal ethics officials signed off on the moves, said Larry Noble, the senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington nonprofit staffed by election-law experts who promote public participation in democratic processes.
But the transactions do raise some new ethical questions for DeVos and the public moving forward, Noble said.
“I would want to watch very carefully if there is anything the department of education is doing that one could argue is going to help that company,” he said. “Also, if she had any inside information about anything that could have influenced the value of that stock, and she increased her holdings because of that, it would be a problem.”
Ultimately, Noble said, the public must rely primarily on DeVos to recuse herself from any actions or deliberations that could be relevant to Neurocore.
Committed to Science?
For the researchers consulted by Education Week, the mismatch between the design of the new scientific study into Neurocore’s technology and the claims made about its effectiveness were of more immediate concern.
The March study, titled "Combined Neurofeedback and Heart Rate Variability Training for Individuals with Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression: A Retrospective Study," was published in the journal NeuroRegulation, which bills itself as the “the official journal of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research.”
The study itself makes “extraordinary” claims, said Todd Thompson, a neuroscientist and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Among them, he said, was that Neurocore’s treatments “present promising, non-pharmaceutical intervention strategies for anxiety and depression” and may be an effective way to “reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in children and adults.”
Thompson, Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania, and Nadine Gaab, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, all raised similar concerns about the study’s design and execution.
Among the flaws they cited:
- The study was conducted by Neurocore staff, not independent researchers.
- The study had neither a control group nor a matched-comparison group, making it impossible to legitimately determine whether any effects were actually caused by the treatment being studied.
- The study is unclear whether participants were simultaneously receiving any other treatments, besides what they were receiving at Neurocore.
- The journal in which the study was published is not well known and is poorly rated for its impact in the neuroscience field.
As a result, Thompson concluded, “it’s impossible to know if the Neurocore treatment is genuinely novel and effective, or if it is instead a very expensive placebo.”
The study is “not sufficient to base treatment recommendations upon,” he said.
Another way of considering Neurocore’s treatment, research, and claims: How would they fare under the U.S. Department of Education’s own criteria for evaluating effectiveness, as embodied in its "What Works Clearinghouse?"
“This study would not be treated as meeting those standards,” said Maynard, who previously oversaw the clearinghouse.
Maynard said she hopes that DeVos’s substantial investment in Neurocore does not signal any changes in the department’s commitment to using only evidence from rigorous research studies to conduct evaluations and inform policy decisions.
“At the very least, I hope [DeVos] will leave in place people who actually understand research and the ways to judge the credibility of evidence,” Maynard said.
Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this report.
- "DeVos-Backed Company Makes Questionable Claims on Autism, ADHD," (Digital Education) January 24, 2017.
- "ESSA Guidance Issued on 'Evidence Based' School Improvement," (Politics K-12) September 16, 2016.