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Oxford Doctors Can Prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder With... Tetris?

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In recent years, the military's top brass have funded some truly bizarre approaches - from neck injections to Reiki - in an effort to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress afflicting today's soldiers. Turns out, they could've just equipped troops with Game Boys.

At least according to one research team out of Oxford University, who claim that Tetris - yes, the ubiquitous, tile-stacking videogame of your youth - can actually prevent PTSD-related flashbacks. Those harrowing moments of recall are among the most devastating symptoms of the condition, which is estimated to affect at least 25 percent of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.


In a study presented last week at the British Psychology Society Annual Conference, a team led by Oxford psychiatry expert Dr. Emily Holmes concluded that when played soon after exposure to trauma, Tetris served as "a cognitive vaccine" that seemed to "inoculate against the build-up of flashbacks." Why? Because the process of playing Tetris, the team hypothesizes, places demands on one's brain that interfere with its ability to form and retain the traumatic memories that later emerge as flashbacks.

To reach that conclusion, the team exposed 60 study participants to "a film of traumatic scenes of injury and death." Thirty minutes later, participants were divvied into three groups: A lucky third of the group played Tetris, while their peers either took a 10-minute computerized trivia quiz or "sat quietly" doing nothing much at all. Participants were then freed from the lab, and asked to keep a week-long journal logging any traumatic flashbacks of the film.


According to the researchers, participants who had played Tetris reported significantly fewer flashbacks than their fellow study participants. More specifically, Tetris-players suffered an average of two flashbacks, those given no task suffered an average of 4.5, and those who took a trivia quiz were afflicted with eight flashbacks.

"The insights from these studies support the possibility that … Tetris," the study reads, "may be a post-trauma intervention to reduce the flashback symptoms of PTSD."

Not quite. First of all, the "trauma" relied upon by these researchers - according to their study, that "traumatic film" was comprised of car crash and surgery footage - is hardly comparable to what a soldier experiences during combat. And a study pool of 60 people, over a one-week period, falls far short of the kind of thorough research necessary to validate a prospective treatment.

Plus, even if the approach does eventually prove viable among soldiers, it'll only be useful for those who've very recently been exposed to trauma: The study relies on interfering with initial memory formation and storage, which occurs within a span of around six hours following a given experience. Soldiers and vets who've been struggling with PTSD for years or even decades, on the other hand, likely won't enjoy any benefit.


That said, this research - which the team has been conducting since 2009 - does deserve some degree of credit. After all, it's in a similar vein to cutting-edge neuroscience that's currently investigating how memories might be tweaked to prevent or treat PTSD. A promising collaboration between researchers at Emory and the University of South California, for example, is testing the merits of virtual-reality exposure therapy combined with the pharmaceutical D-Cycloserine (which is though to enhance the brain's learning process). Researchers hope the combo will change how a soldier's brain rewrites traumatic memories, making those memories less frightening.

This Oxford team is, instead, trying to prevent the brain from storing those memories in the first place. And that idea, crazy as it sounds, does have some merit: If during the six-hour period the brain requires to store a memory the storage process is interfered with - especially, research suggests, by a visual-cognitive task (like Tetris) - the brain will be less able to retain a given recollection.


Surely, it'll require much more research before Tetris becomes a bonafide PTSD deterrent. And a tip for researchers as they plot their next investigation: Tetris is ultra-compatible with another, oft-touted PTSD treatment. Combining them? Just might do the trick.

Image by US Army

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