Imagine an inoculation that a soldier could take within an hour or two of witnessing a particularly traumatic wartime event. If there was a drug to prevent flashbacks from occurring later on, most soldiers would probably take it. Call it an Anti-PTSD drug.
But what if that drug wasn’t a drug at all, but a simple computer game you could equip every military unit with on the front lines?
Yes, researchers who did an analogue study on 40 undergraduates suggest that the old computer game Tetris can actually help prevent future post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) flashbacks. Here’s their theory:
Our theory is based on two key findings:
1) Cognitive science suggests that the brain has selective resources with limited capacity;
2) The neurobiology of memory suggests a 6-hr window to disrupt memory consolidation.
The rationale for a ‘cognitive vaccine’ approach is as follows: Trauma flashbacks are sensory-perceptual, visuo-spatial mental images. Visuo-spatial cognitive tasks selectively compete for resources required to generate mental images. Thus, a visuo-spatial computer game (e.g. “Tetris”) will interfere with flashbacks.
After leaving the laboratory, participants then kept a daily diary in which they recorded their flashbacks to the trauma film over a period of 1-week. Crucially, we found that participants [who played 10 minutes of Tetris] experienced significantly fewer flashbacks over the week than those [who didn’t]. Furthermore, at 1-week, participants returned to the laboratory and participants in the game condition had significantly lower scores on the measure of clinical symptomatology of trauma.
Playing Tetris appeared to interfere with the brain’s ability to form a significant visuo-spatial memory of the traumatic event. Such memories are an important component to flashbacks. No such memories means a reduced likelihood of future flashbacks.
The limitations of the study are many — undergrads, not real trauma (the students watched a 12 minute film), and only a 1 week followup. So it’s hard to say whether these findings would be robust enough to actually work on real trauma experienced firsthand by an individual, versus a movie watching in a college laboratory.
But if confirmed, the findings would suggest that we could help prevent (or perhaps at the very least, reduce) the likelihood of future flashbacks (and perhaps full-blown PTSD) by simply having soldiers play specific video games like Tetris as soon as they return to the safety of their camp.
This may possibly be a great prevention method for anyone exposed to a traumatic event if the findings hold up. A hospital ER could be equipped with computer terminals (or Nintendo DSs) with Tetris on them, with one possible treatment for psychological trauma victims being an emergency “course” of Tetris. It’ll be interesting to see if this research holds up under further study, as it would be a ground-breaking intervention for a preventative treatment for PTSD.