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Can playing the computer game Tetris prevent intrusive memories after trauma?

The media have recently picked up on research that explored this and it is probably one of the questions we are being asked most frequently at the moment.

It’s certainly an interesting study.

Following a traumatic event, many people experience intrusive symptoms. These can include having disturbing images unwittingly come to mind along with the associated emotional and physical response to them. Such “re-experiencing” of an incident can be very distressing and disruptive.

The researchers tested the theory, based on cognitive neuroscience around the brain’s memory processes, that these intrusive images could be significantly reduced if an activity with high visuo-spatial demands was undertaken shortly after the incident. They believed this could disrupt the way the memory was processed.

24 men and 37 women took part in the research and all had either experienced or witnessed a motor vehicle accident that involved “actual or threatened death or serious injury”. This is the definition of a traumatic event as set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition (DSM-IV) PTSD.

They were seen in the emergency department of a UK hospital within 6 hours of leaving the scene and, having been identified as potential research participants, were assessed by a clinical psychologist and allocated to either the Tetris group or a control group that were given a written activity task.

The Tetris group were asked to briefly tell the researcher the worst moments of the accident then play the computer game for 20 minutes with at least one uninterrupted period of 10 minutes.

Participants were reviewed 1 week and 1 month after the intervention.

At 1 week, participants in the Tetris group recorded significantly fewer and less distressing intrusive memories than participants in the control condition. There was no clinical difference between the groups when comparing other trauma symptoms – as would be expected when the theory was only relating to intrusive images.

At 1 month, the difference between the 2 groups’ reporting of intrusive images was “small to negligible”.

So what does this mean?

As with any research, we cannot generalise outside of the participants in the study. Participants were included on the basis of time elapsed since leaving the scene of the accident, being able to remember the accident, being alert and orientated and having sufficient physical mobility to play a computer game. Potential participants who had lost consciousness for more than 5 minutes, who were intoxicated or had a history of severe mental illness were excluded.

Although the intrusive symptoms declined initially on the 1 week review, by one month there was no significant difference between the Tetris group and the control group and we need to better understand the processes behind this “catch-up”.

One thing is clear, the search for effective trauma treatments and preventive approaches will challenge our thinking and there will probably never be a one-size fits all. As the researchers say, more research is needed but this is potentially a promising new low-intensity preventative approach that could prevent one of the disturbing symptoms of psychological trauma.

The full article can be read at:

https://www.nature.com/mp/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/mp201723a.html