How to Keep PTSD at Bay? Play Tetris

The popular video game may help prevent flashbacks

How do you avoid post-traumatic stress disorder? By playing a game of Tetris after the disturbing event. According to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE, playing the popular video game may help prevent the formation of traumatic memories and reduce patients’ flashbacks.

People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- an anxiety disorder stemming from the experience of a harrowing incident -- suffer from recurring, unwanted thoughts and images of the traumatic event. While there are treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, prescription medications (and the experimental use of pot and Ecstasy) to help people overcome their symptoms, researchers at Oxford University wanted to find a way to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder from occurring in the first place. One method may be to change the way the brain forms memories in the hours after the event.

According to their research, the human brain has a limited ability to manage memories, and memory consolidation --  the process by which memories are formed -- is normally completed within a six-hour window. Because the areas of the brain used to play Tetris are the same ones used during memory formation, the research team theorized that they could use the Tetris video game during those crucial six hours to distract the brain and keep it from solidifying the memory. This, in turn, would help reduce the number of flashbacks.

To test their theory, the researchers showed a group of healthy volunteers a series of traumatic video clips that involved fatal car crashes and other injuries. Half of the volunteers were then asked to play Tetris, while the other half did nothing. Over the next week, those who played Tetris experienced significantly fewer flashbacks than those who sat quietly after watching the video clips.

The researchers then tested their theory with other types of video games that involved trivia or language skills, and found that they did not impede flashbacks in the same way. In fact, those who played trivia games ended up having more flashbacks over the course of the following week versus those who did nothing after the video. According to the Oxford researchers, spatial tasks like Tetris use the same areas of the brain needed for memory formation. Since the brain cannot allocate its resources to both tasks at once, the memory is diminished.

The research also seems to suggest that current treatments involving talk therapy and describing the event in detail right after it has taken place may actually intensify the traumatic memory, leading to more severe and frequent flashbacks. Likewise, other studies have shown that, because sleep helps consolidate our memories, going to bed after a traumatic event may also increase the chances of PTSD. Though more research is needed, the team at Oxford hope this will point to more effective treatments that can be used in the hours after a traumatic event.

Who would have thought that an all-night marathon of Tetris would be just what the doctor ordered?

Do you think a video game can help erase traumatic memories? Chime in below.

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