Playing the 1980s computer game Tetris, can prevent the unpleasant flashbacks which come after a traumatic event, scientists have discovered.
Oxford University and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that patients treated in accident and emergency departments following car accidents were far less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they were allowed to play the game within six hours of admission.
The puzzle, which involves fitting brightly-coloured blocks together is one of the most popular video games ever invented, and is still played by millions of people around the world.
PTSD can affect people who have experienced war, torture, rape, road accidents or other kinds of situations in which they felt their life, or that of another person, was in danger.
While most people do not develop PTSD after trauma, one of the core clinical symptoms in those who do involves recurrent and intrusive memories, or flashbacks.
Usually people are given therapy after symptoms emerge, but there has never been an intervention which actually prevented trauma in the first place.
“Our hypothesis was that after a trauma, patients would have fewer intrusive memories if they got to play Tetris as part of a short behavioural intervention while waiting in the hospital Emergency Department,” said Dr Emily Holmes, professor of psychology at Karolinska Institute’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience.
“Since the game is visually demanding, we wanted to see if it could prevent the intrusive aspects of the traumatic memories from becoming established, by disrupting a process known as memory consolidation.”
The study involved 71 motor vehicle accident victims, of whom half were asked to recall the trauma briefly and then play Tetris. The other half were used as a control group.
The researchers found that those who had played Tetris had fewer intrusive memories of the trauma in total over the week immediately following the accident than the controls. The researchers also found that the intrusive memories diminished more quickly.
The researchers now want to conduct the trial on larger patient groups to see if the psychological benefits of the intervention persist for a longer time.
“Anyone can experience trauma,” says Professor Holmes. “It would make a huge difference to a great many people if we could create simple behavioural psychological interventions using computer games to prevent post-traumatic suffering and spare them these grueling intrusive memories.
"This is early days and more research is needed.”
The research was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.