Solna, Sweden – Playing Tetris in the hours after a distressing incident can help prevent the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a new study has found. Scientists conducted the research on 71 car crash victims as they were waiting for treatment at one hospital’s accident and emergency department.
They asked half of the patients to briefly recall the incident and then play the classic computer game, in which players arrange falling blocks of different colours and shapes. The others were given a written activity to complete. In both groups, the task was given within six hours of the accident. The researchers, from Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Oxford, found that the patients who had played Tetris reported fewer intrusive memories, commonly known as flashbacks, in the week that followed.
“Since the game is visually demanding, we wanted to see if it could prevent the intrusive aspects of the traumatic memories from becoming established,” said Emily Holmes, a psychology professor at the Karolinska Institute. She said this could take place “by disrupting a process known as memory consolidation”.
“It would make a huge difference to a great many people if we could create simple behavioural psychological interventions using computer games to prevent post-traumatic suffering and spare them these gruelling intrusive memories,” added Professor Holmes. “This is early days and more research is needed.”
Intrusive memories are one of the main symptoms of PTSD, an anxiety disorder developed by one in four people who have been in motor accidents. PTSD can also be caused by violent assaults, military combat or witnessing violent events such as deaths, terrorist attacks or natural disasters, but it is not yet clear why some people develop the condition and others do not.
Professor Holmes said the aim of the research was to discover if “after a trauma, patients would have fewer intrusive memories if they got to play Tetris as part of a short behavioural intervention while waiting in the hospital emergency department”.
The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, appeared to prove this hypothesis, also finding that flashbacks experienced by those who played the game were quicker to disappear.
“This first week after trauma can be important for our patients, who have to go home, recover and look after themselves, which can be hard to do if you’re getting intrusive memories of the trauma, often several a day,” said Oxford researcher Lali Iyadurai.
The researchers said the next step would be to conduct a similar study on a larger group of patients, to examine how long any benefits of intervention like this could persist for and whether games such as Tetris could help people who already have PTSD.
Tetris was created by Russian game designer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984.