For years, doctors have tried to treat PTSD with everything from an anesthetic used during childbirth to hypnosis. But now, a study suggests a simpler approach: playing a particular video game. The findings offer hope for preventive treatment.
HealthDay News states that Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD -- triggered by experiencing an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror -- can include flashbacks, emotional numbing, overwhelming guilt and shame, being easily startled, and difficulty maintaining close relationships.
And as the nation witnessed on September 11, 2001, trauma is an equal opportunity employer. It did not differentiate between race, gender, age, or social status. Both the traumatic event ( the planes slamming into the twin towers) and the distress experienced by survivors (of the 3,271 evacuees of the Twin Towers surveyed in a study, 96% had symptoms of PTSD), serves as an example of this fact.
The Associated Press reported that overall, New Yorkers took an emotional battering after the terrorist attacks, a study suggested more than 400,000 city residents experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.
The sudden abundance of sufferers from events such as this prompted Oxford University scientists to ask: what if an early intervention was available to treat people in the aftermath of trauma exposure?
They added: "The trauma field is in critical need of easily accessible treatment innovations to reduce PTSD symptoms in the immediate aftermath of trauma."
Tetris= Innovative treatment
In a study presented last week at the 2012 British Psychology Society Annual Conference in London, a team led by Oxford psychiatry expert Dr Emily Holmes concluded that something as seemingly simple as playing the video game Tetris can reduce flashbacks and other psychological symptoms following a traumatic event.
MSNBC reports to test their idea, researchers asked subjects to view a disturbing film.
Within six hours of viewing this film test subjects were randomly assigned to one of three tasks: answering trivia; playing Tetris; or engaging in nothing in particular.
Over the following week, subjects who had played Tetris reported experiencing significantly fewer flashbacks of the film than the others did. The finding supported previous research on Tetris therapy.
Holmes, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and the lead author of the experiment, calls Tetris a potential ''cognitive vaccine'' for P.T.S.D.
In other words, Tetris acts as a “cognitive vaccine” inoculating against the development of flashbacks-- much like the flu vaccine inoculates against developing the flu.
What's so special about Tetris?
According to the New York Times,
The scientists suspect the Tetris vaccine works because flashbacks are registered primarily as visual memories. By playing Tetris right after a trauma, the visual cortex becomes so busy that the brain doesn't encode the horrific visual imagery in the way that it otherwise might. (Tetris addicts report seeing the game's bricks falling in their mind when they try to sleep.) And Tetris is nonverbal, so it doesn't impinge upon other crucial work the brain does to help make sense of -- and cope with -- a traumatic episode.
photo by watz
Tetris, the ubiquitous puzzle game, was invented in 1984, and has since become one of the most popular games in the world
Why focus on preventing Flashbacks?
Re-experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks are the hallmark characteristic of PTSD, authors of the study report.
The Forensic Psychology Practice explains that PTSD has three main categories of symptoms:
• re-experiencing of the event (in the form of thoughts and feelings)
• avoidance (of situations that are the same or similar)
• hyper-arousal (such as anxiety, fear and increased startle response).
After experiencing a traumatic event, people can suffer from disturbing intrusive memories of the event, commonly referred to as flashbacks, in which the traumatic material comes back to mind as unwanted images and scenes of the trauma.
These experiences are usually triggered by a feature of the environment that is similar to the original trauma (such as a sight, smell, sound, or place). These events are involuntary, completely beyond the control of the victim. At their worst, it may feel to the victim as if the event is actually recurring in the present, causing significant distress and impairment.
The Fine PrintOxford University scientists say this work serves as a laboratory model of the types of intrusive memories associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the real world.
But many questions still remain including: Should Game Boys loaded with Tetris be on hand in ERs? How many games does one have to play to be "inoculated" against the flashbacks of PTSD? Just like some children get vaccinated against the chicken pox and still get the disease, can the same thing happen with Tetris as a "cognitive vaccine"?
Still, if Tetris proves effective in further studies, the authors write the game could be used "by emergency services in the early post-trauma period, e.g. to victims of rape or delivering such tasks to populations subject to regular trauma exposure e.g. firefighters or those involved in armed combat."
But when the BBC spoke with Professor David Alexander from the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research about this research, he had some reservations.
He stressed it was ethically impossible in research to stage an event so catastrophic traumatic as the type of incident which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The volunteers here knew that something was going to happen, but they were not going to be harmed - a genuinely traumatic incident is different in scale, and is usually completely unexpected and marked by feelings of loss of control."
U.S. Navy Photo / Jim Watson
A fire fighter emerges from the smoke and debris of the World Trade Center. Photo taken on September 14, 2001
According to the DSM-IV, the diagnostic bible for psychiatric disorders, in order for PTSD to be diagnosed:
The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present:
1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or threat to the physical integrity of self or others
2) the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
Alexander said another potential problem was that post-traumatic stress was normally detected and diagnosed only weeks after the event, rather than in the hours immediately afterwards, and it was very difficult to predict which people were likely to develop it.
According to the DSM-IV, the symptoms have to last for at least one month to qualify for PTSD.
At press time, an email seeking a response from Holmes had not been immediately answered.
However, MSNBC reports that researchers stress that playing Tetris "does not suggest a video game can instantly cure PTSD, but that it does suggests alternative treatments for the symptoms."
Holmes isn't yet recommending Tetris as a therapy.
Asked whether we should, today, be equipping soldiers with Tetris games to play immediately after battle, Holmes told LiveScience, "Not until we do clinical trials first."