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Video Game May Help Reduce Flashbacks From Trauma

Colorful shapes in 'Tetris' seem to force competition for brain's sensory data

THURSDAY, Jan. 15 (HealthDay News) -- A video game may hold promise as a preventative for the flashbacks some people experience after a traumatic event, a new study suggests.

Healthy test subjects who played "Tetris," a video game in which a player must fit colorful shapes into rows, shortly after watching a film featuring traumatic images had far fewer flashbacks during the next week than those who didn't play the game, according to preliminary research by Oxford University psychologists.

This finding, published in the online journal PLoS ONE, could lead to a unique intervention for post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). Among the condition's key symptoms are haunting flashbacks of a traumatic event.

Current treatments for flashbacks only address the problem once PTSD has been diagnosed.

"This is only a first step in showing that this might be a viable approach to preventing PTSD," lead researcher Emily Holmes, of the Oxford department of psychiatry, said in a news release issued by the journal. "This was a pure science experiment about how the mind works, from which we can try to understand the bigger picture. There is a lot to be done to translate this experimental science result into a potential treatment."

The researchers theorized that the process of recognizing and moving the colorful shapes in "Tetris" so soon after an event may force a mental competition between the game's visuals and those of the trauma in the brain.

"We wanted to find a way to dampen down flashbacks -- that is, the raw sensory images of trauma that are over-represented in the memories of those with PTSD," Holmes said. "Tetris may work by competing for the brain's resources for sensory information. We suggest it specifically interferes with the way sensory memories are laid down in the period after trauma and thus reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards."

But while it may interfere with the recall of the visual experiences, playing the game leaves memories of the context surrounding the event (the narrative) and meaning of what happened intact.

"We know there is a period of up to six hours in which it is possible to affect certain types of memories that are laid down in the human mind," Oxford researcher Catherine Deeprose said in the news release. "We have shown that in healthy volunteers, playing Tetris in this time window can reduce flashback-type memories without wiping out the ability to make sense of the event."

The researchers plan to develop their findings as way to ease PTSD symptoms before they occur.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about post-traumatic stress disorder.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: PLoS ONE, news release, Jan. 7, 2009

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