Visually demanding games like Tetris could help in treatment of PTSD

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A new study has shed light on how visually demanding games like Tetris could help reduce intrusive memories or upsetting flashback resulting from trauma.

Published in Psychological Science, the study asked 52 participants, aged between 18 and 51 and divided in two groups, to watch a 12-minute traumatic film featuring 11 scenes involving death. A day later, one group watched stills of the films to reactivate memory followed by an unrelated activity for 10 minutes, and then played the Tetris video game for 12 minutes. The other group was made to do nothing for the 12 minutes after the unrelated activity.

Over the following week, individuals who had memory reactivation and played Tetris reported experiencing significantly fewer intrusive memories than those that did not. A further experiment established that the combination of reactivation of the memories with playing Tetris was critical.

The authors of the study from Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, Ella James, Emily Holmes and colleagues, concludes that Tetris visually demanding game-playing may have this beneficial effect through disruption of the natural process of memory reconsolidation.

Researchers note that the results implicate that that the frequency of intrusive memories induced by experimental trauma can be reduced by disrupting reconsolidation via a competing cognitive-task procedure, even for established memories.

The work has the potential for developing techniques for reducing the frequency of intrusive memories. Intrusive memories are a core feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as vividly replaying in one’s mind’s eye the moment of a car crash.

However, the researchers are quick to point out that playing Tetris alone (a nonreactivation control condition) and the control of memory reactivation alone was sufficient to reduce intrusions. This means that if a patient is asked to play a game that they enjoy or are made to remember the trauma would would be unlikely to reduce intrusions.

Rather, their combination is required, and the reduction in intrusive-memory is due to engaging in a visuospatial task within the window of memory reconsolidation, which interferes with intrusive image reconsolidation. Though the results are promising, they do not permit conclusions about task modality specificity, so future work is therefore warranted, the researchers add.

Another limitation with the study was that it involved only one computer game and researchers recommend that in future studies, scientists should look into alternative games hypothesized either to share visuospatial working memory resources with intrusions or to not share such resources.