Consisting of only seven unique blocks and exceedingly simple gameplay, the highly addictive cult classic Tetris took the world by storm in the late 80s. Developed purely as means of entertainment by Russian engineer Pajitnov, little would he realize that his creation would be found not only on game systems, but possibly also in hospitals around the world.
Professor Emily Holmes of the University of Karolinski and her team have been investigating the therapeutic benefits of Tetris in reducing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. During an episode of PTSD, sensory memories spring to the present, hijacking reality and causing bouts of anxiety and flashbacks. To combat PTSD, doctors and scientists have been focused on negating the effects through the memory consolidation theory, which states that there is a window of a few hours after the traumatic incident where memories are malleable. These valuable hours and how they are spent can greatly alter the symptoms and occurrences of PTSD for the rest of the victim’s life.
In animals, it is possible to alter the severity of traumatic memories in the window of time through protein synthesis inhibition. Despite its success in animals, these inhibitors are toxic to humans. Thus, Holmes and her team have looked towards Tetris as means of easing PTSD. However, verbal games such as Pub Quiz or counting backwards have been shown to have no effect or even to increase the severity of the traumatic memories. As Holmes says, “We wanted to have a task that really tapped into visual memory. With Tetris, it's the colors, shapes, and movements that are very absorbing.”
"Battling PTSD" by Marines, Arlington, VA
The study was conducted in the emergency department of a UK hospital, on seventy-one subjects with a mean age of forty. All subjects either experienced or witnessed a motor vehicle accident, met PTSD criterion A1 for a traumatic event, and were treated within six hours of the incident. Patients were offered an option of a psychotherapy trial, pharmacological trial, or a “technological intervention.” Forty eight percent of patients agreed to this “technological intervention,” seen more favorably as it was brief, and “therapist-free.” Then, patients were divided into an experimental group who would play Tetris for twenty minutes on a Nintendo DS, and a control group who were given a placebo treatment and asked to write an activity log. After a week, the subjects were asked to assess the occurrences of intrusive thoughts related to the incident. By polling seventy-one patients, it was determined that Tetris reduced intrusive memories by 62% in comparison to the control.
Though the results look promising, Holmes and her team are currently focused on exploring the effects of Tetris after on a greater scope of traumatic events, and gauging the effectiveness of the intervention after a longer period of time. However, if the results remain consistent, then video games such as Tetris can be the future of psychological treatment in veterans and other patients with PTSD.
Source: Iyadurai, L., Blackwell, S. E., Meiser-Stedman, R., Watson, P. C., Bonsall, M. B., Geddes, J. R., . . . Holmes, E. A. (2017, March 28). Preventing intrusive memories after trauma via a brief intervention involving Tetris computer game play in the emergency department: a proof-of-concept randomized controlled trial.