The popular building-block computer game Tetris might be more than just an idle pastime that keeps you glued to a screen. Playing it shortly after experiencing a traumatic event seems to block some of the recurrent intrusive memories that people are often left with. The proof-of-concept of the role, which Tetris could play within psychological interventions after trauma, is described in Springer Nature's journal Molecular Psychiatry, in a study jointly led by Lalitha Iyadurai of the University of Oxford in the UK with Emily Holmes of Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
Intrusive memories often spring to mind without warning after someone has experienced some form of trauma and they can bring back specific sights, sounds and emotions attached to the original incident. In some cases, intrusive memories go hand in hand with the development of acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as with conditions such as depression and severe grief.
Iyadurai and her colleagues used their insights into neuroscience and findings from previous experimental research to test whether one dose of a brief psychological intervention including playing a highly visual-spatial computer game such as Tetris could prevent intrusive symptoms building up. The participants were 71 patients waiting in the emergency department at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford who all experienced a traumatic motor vehicle accident. Participants in the intervention group were asked to bring the memory to mind, given specific instructions of how to play the game, and then asked to play the game for approximately 20 minutes. Participants took part within six hours of their accident. Over the next week, all participants noted any intrusive memories in a daily diary.
Having taken part in the psychological intervention including playing Tetris was found to reduce the number of intrusive memories participants experienced by 62 percent in the subsequent week compared to those in the control group. Participants in the "Gamer" group also reported less distress from intrusion symptoms.
As one participant put it when she reflected on whether the intervention including playing Tetris helped her at all: "It certainly took my mind off it at a time when I probably would have sat brooding and feeling very sorry for myself."
Patients in the UK often wait up to four hours or more to receive care in an emergency department. The researchers therefore believe that introducing science-driven psychological treatment methods such as behavioural protocols including Tetris that could be delivered by staff during this waiting period could be a straightforward way by which to reduce the later impact of patients' psychological trauma.
"A brief psychological intervention including Tetris offers a cognitive 'therapeutic vaccine' that could be administered soon after a traumatic event to prevent the recurrence of intrusive memories of trauma in the subsequent week," says Iyadurai.
The intervention's brevity, low cost and the fact that it can be administered by non-specialists also make it a viable and scalable option that could reach many. The researchers add that within the same intervention protocol other video games and activities that combine visual and spatial tasks, such as playing Candy Crush and drawing, could also hold similar benefits, ahead of distracting activities such as reading or filling in crosswords that predominantly focus on verbal tasks.
Iyadurai and Holmes believe that the results from this proof-of-concept study warrant a larger trial to detect whether there is also a more long-term benefit to playing Tetris as part of a psychological intervention shortly after a traumatic event.
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