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Can playing Tetris help prevent PTSD?
This was the main measure the study was designed to assess. However, researchers also looked at people's post traumatic distress symptoms and anxiety and depression symptoms, one week and one month after the accident. They found no difference between the two groups on all but one symptom (about intrusive memories) after one week, and no differences at all after one month.
In feedback, people said they found playing Tetris very easy, very helpful, and not distressing or burdensome. The researchers say there were no adverse events from the treatment.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers said the intervention was "feasible and acceptable" for use in A&E, because it is short, low cost, simple and flexible to administer. The say other visual games, such as Candy Crush, or simply drawing, could also be used.
Their previous research suggested that the important thing is that the task is visually demanding, as opposed to a verbally demanding task such as filling in crosswords or reading.
They explain the lack of difference in effects after one month by saying the trial was not big enough to show an effect at that point, and call for bigger studies, "designed to test whether effects extend to one month or longer".
They conclude that the intervention "offers a low-intensity means that could substantially improve the mental health of those who have experienced psychological trauma."
Involvement in a traumatic event such as a traffic accident can have long-lasting effects on mental health. Some people have months or years of distressing, intrusive flash-backs, feelings of guilt or helplessness, anxiety and depression. At present, there are no treatments that can be given straight away to prevent such long-term effects.
The lack of long-term effects in the study results mean we need to be cautious about claims that playing Tetris could "prevent" PTSD. Limitations of the study - such as an untested control intervention, and the relatively small number of participants - mean this is an experimental study to establish a theory, not proof that the treatment works.
Intrusive memories are not the only symptom of PTSD but are thought to be an important part of it. We don't know whether interfering with the laying down of these intense, distressing visual images can prevent PTSD.
However, a simple treatment to reduce the recurrence of these memories - even in the short term - might reduce people's suffering in the immediate aftermath of a trauma.
The same researchers published a paper looking at use of Tetris after trauma, as we reported back in 2009, but in that case they relied on "inducing" trauma by asking people to watch films of traumatic events. This is the first time the intervention has been tested in people who have actually experienced real life trauma.
However, there are many different types and severities of trauma that could carry a risk of PTSD. This study, though assessing real life trauma, only looked at adults involved in a road traffic accident but who were fully conscious and able and willing to play a computer game.
We need to take care not to generalise the possibilities of such an intervention too far at this stage. The appropriateness of offering computer games may be very different for people who are victims of assault, for example. The potential effects and even harms could be different in these people.
Even relatively "minor" traumatic experiences such as a dog bite or a nasty fall can trigger a pattern of intrusive memories in some people. Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy may help people experiencing long-term mental health problems after traumatic experiences.
And, interestingly, the concept behind this study chimes with a relatively new treatment concept for PTSD known as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), which involves a similarly visual intensive process.
Read more about the treatment of PTSD.
"Tetris can prevent post-traumatic stress disorder," reports The Daily Telegraph. An early stage study found that people who'd been in traffic accidents who played the popular computer game while waiting in A&E for treatment had fewer intrusive memories.
Links to Headlines
Tetris can prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, Oxford University finds. The Daily Telegraph, March 28 2017
How Tetris therapy could help patients. BBC News, March 28 2017
Playing Tetris 'can help ward off PTSD symptoms', study suggests. Sky News, March 28 2017
Playing TETRIS 'can protect soldiers from debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder'. The Sun, March 28 2017
Links to Science
Iyadurai L, Blackwell SE, Meiser-Stedman R, et al. 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. Molecular Psychiatry. Published online March 28 2017
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