A preliminary study by psychologists at the University of Oxford has found that playing a video game like Tetris within a few hours of a traumatic experience can reduce and prevent the apparition of traumatic flashbacks. This “cognitive vaccine” which could potentially prevent the advent of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) works by replacing flashbacks in the mind.
"We wanted to find a way to dampen down flashbacks - that is, the raw sensory images of trauma that are over-represented in the memories of those with PTSD," said lead researcher Emily Holmes, of the Oxford department of psychiatry, in a news release. Read More...
Traumatic flashbacks are sensory-perceptions and visuospatial mental images. The human brain has resources with limited and selective cognitive capacity, meaning that new memories need to compete with each other to stay on top. According to neurobiology experts, the brain has a six hour window to disrupt memory consolidation.
“We know there is a period of up to six hours in which it is possible to affect certain types of memories that are laid down in the human mind," Oxford researcher Catherine Deeprose said in the news release.
By making Tetris images (which are visuospatial in nature) compete against traumatic ones within this initial time frame, the formation of traumatic flashbacks can be reduced, the study has found.
"Tetris may work by competing for the brain's resources for sensory information,” said Holmes. “We suggest it specifically interferes with the way sensory memories are laid down in the period after trauma and thus reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards."
The experiment had 40 healthy volunteers watch a film that contained traumatic images of various injuries and advertisements demonstrating the dangers of drinking and driving. After 30 minutes, half of the volunteers played Tetris for 10 minutes while the other group did nothing. The first group experienced significantly fewer flashbacks to the film over the next week.
While the experiment appears to have had the intended effect of reducing the impact of traumatic images on the psyche, the Oxford team points out that the process leaves intact the ability to deliberately recall the event.
"We have shown that in healthy volunteers, playing Tetris in this time window can reduce flashback-type memories without wiping out the ability to make sense of the event,” said Deeprose.
“This is only a first step in showing that this might be a viable approach to preventing PTSD," said Holmes. "This was a pure science experiment about how the mind works, from which we can try to understand the bigger picture. There is a lot to be done to translate this experimental science result into a potential treatment."
The researchers also emphasized that no conclusions should be drawn for computer gaming in general with regard to the studied effect.