The NY Times editorialized this morning against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos: Wanted: One Republican with Integrity to Defeat Betsy DeVos. The final confirmation vote by the Senate is currently scheduled for Monday, and unless one more Republican Senator makes a decision of conscience, Vice President Mike Pence will break the tie. All Democrats have pledged to vote “no,” along with Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski.
But whatever happens on Monday, there is something that bears watching in upcoming months—DeVos’s refusal to divest from Neurocore, a medically questionable brain therapy company in which she and her husband Dick DeVos, the Amway heir, have reported an investment of between $5 and $25 million. They have invested in Neurocore through their family company, Windquest Group.
This blog commented on DeVos’s huge investment in Neurocore last week, based on blog reports from Mitchell Robinson and Jennifer Berkshire. Then earlier this week—lost in the coverage of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee vote to report the DeVos nomination to the full Senate—reporters for the New York Times explored the problem of Neurocore.
The NY Times reports that while Neurocore’s results are trumpeted by the company as astonishing, this is very likely a story of marketing and quack science: “A group of brain performance centers backed by Betsy DeVos, the nominee for education secretary, promotes results that are nothing short of stunning: improvements reported by 91 percent of patients with depression, 90 percent with attention deficit disorder, 90 percent with anxiety. The treatment offered by Neurocore, a business in which Ms. DeVos and her husband, Dick, are the chief investors, consists of showing movies to patients and interrupting them when the viewers become distracted, in an effort to retrain their brains. With eight centers in Michigan and Florida and plans to expand, Neurocore says it has assessed about 10,000 people for health problems that often require medication… But a review of Neurocore’s claims and interviews with medical experts suggest its conclusions are unproven and its methods questionable.”
Here is how, according to the reporters, Neurocore has violated standard medical practice: “Neurocore has not published its results in peer-reviewed medical literature. Its techniques—including mapping brain waves to diagnose problems and using neurofeedback, a form of biofeedback, to treat them—are not considered standards of care for the vast majority of the disorders it treats, including autism. Social workers, not doctors, perform assessments, and low-paid technicians with little training apply the methods to patients, including children with complex problems.”
The reporters quote a child psychiatrist and professor at Tufts School of Medicine who worries that programs like Neurocore “divert attention, hope, and resources” from more proven treatments.
Neurocore is designed to cure serious medical problems through behavioral conditioning: “At Neurocore’s clinics, children and adults with A.D.H.D., anxiety, depression, autism and other psychological and neurological diagnoses sit before monitors watching movies or television shows… with sensors attached to their scalps and earlobes. Whenever they become distracted or anxious, the video automatically freezes. That feedback, known as conditioning, leads the vast majority of clients, company officers say, to experience improvements in their disorders after 30 45-minute sessions….”
A serious problem is the expense—over $2,000, which is only sometimes covered by insurance. Amanda Farmer, who worked as a technician administering the sessions for eight months in 2012, expresses concerns she heard from prospective patients: “A lot of people were skeptical, and they gloss over any of the real questions: ‘Are you sure? This seems like a lot of money. What happens if it doesn’t do anything?'”
Neurocore is led by chief medical officer, Dr. Majid Fotuhi. “Dr. Fotuhi has impressive credentials: an M.D. from Harvard and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins. However, his short-lived previous venture, NeurExpand Brain Centers in Maryland, folded after Medicare refused to reimburse services and demanded repayment for lack of scientific evidence of their effectiveness.” Dr. Fotuhi says of Neurocore: “the company would be publishing its results in peer-reviewed scientific literature soon.”
According to the NY Times reporters, “Neurocore is the creation of Timothy G. Royer, a licensed psychologist with a master’s degree in theology, who served as division chief of pediatric psychology at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. Originally called Hope 139, after Psalm 139 from the Bible, the company marketed itself to schools—especially religious ones—in Michigan to help children improve academic scores and lessen the need for medication to treat certain ailments. Ms. DeVos and her husband began supporting the company in 2008, for a time hosting the company in the offices of Windquest.”