In a pilot study, German and Swedish researchers discover playing a specific video game in association with a behavioral intervention program reduced the number of flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A team of researchers from Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden used the computer game Trelis, a tile-matching puzzle video game, as an intervention among a group of 20 individuals hospitalized for PTSD. They found the number of flashbacks for the stressful events decreased.
Professor Henrik Kessler and Dr. Aram Kehyayan from the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital Bochum, and Professor Emily Holmes, from the Karolinska Institutet, report their findings online in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Researchers explain that one of the most serious symptoms of PTSD is the involuntary recurrence of visual memories of traumatic experiences.
“PTSD can be treated well using the therapies available,” said Kessler. “However, there are many more patients than therapy places. That’s why the researchers are looking for methods outside conventional treatments that can relieve the symptoms.”
About 10 years ago, Holmes and her team found that the computer game Tetris can suppress flashbacks caused by horror films in healthy people when played shortly after watching the film.
In the current study, the research team tested whether this effect can also help patients with PTSD, for whom the cause of the stressful memories mostly dates back years.
The study involved 20 patients with complex PTSD who were hospitalized for six to eight weeks for regular therapy.
In addition to the usual individual and group therapies, they also underwent a special intervention. This consisted of writing one of their stressful memories down on a sheet of paper. Then they tore up the piece of paper — without talking about the content — and played Tetris on a tablet for 25 minutes.
Over the weeks, individuals recorded their different flashbacks —such as experiences of violence in different situations — in a diary. Then, the specific content of the flashback was targeted in a sequential manner.
In doing this, researchers discovered the intervention reduced flashbacks on the specific content addressed. However, the number of flashbacks remained relatively constant for the untargeted flashback contents.
As the study progressed, the various flashback contents were targeted one after the other. Overall, the number of flashbacks for the situations that were targeted fell by an average of 64 percent.
Flashbacks for which contents were never targeted decreased by only eleven percent. The intervention had an overall effect for 16 of the 20 patients tested.
The researchers posited that the success of the method is based on the following mechanism: When patients visualize the stressful memory in detail, the areas for visuospatial processing in the brain are activated.
These same areas are also important for playing Tetris. Both tasks therefore require comparable and limited resources, resulting in interference.
Whenever a patient consciously remembers the content of a flashback, the associated memory trace becomes temporarily unstable. If interference occurs during this time, the memory trace could be weakened when it is stored again, resulting in fewer flashbacks, the scientists suspect.
“In our study, the intervention was supervised by a team member, but he did not play an active role and did not read the written traumatic memories,” explains Kessler.
“Our hope is that we will be able to derive a treatment that people could perform on their own to help them cope, even if there are no places available for therapy. However, the intervention cannot replace complex trauma therapy, but can only alleviate a central symptom, flashbacks.”
Source: Ruhr-University Bochum