Can a Video Game Treat Complex PTSD Flashbacks?

PTSD is being discovered to affect many more people than previously thought. As these discoveries have been made, research at universities, hospitals and complex PTSD treatment centers has been accelerated to discover new ways of treating the illness. One such experiment that shows promise utilizes the Tetris video; here is how that works.

Volume Equates to a Need for New Treatment Options

There are many different methods of treating PTSD and most of them are very effective. With the discovery of a broader range of sufferers, however, the need for treatment is exceeding available treatment slots at complex PTSD treatment centers. This has given rise to the need for new treatment options.

The Methodology

One of the most recurring and serious symptoms of PTSD are flashbacks. Prior research has shown that individuals who played Tetris immediately after watching a horror film, experienced a dramatic suppression of flashbacks. Researchers looking for complex PTSD treatments wondered if playing the video game could be used to treat PTSD that was the result of experiencing trauma.

20 patients with complex PTSD who were hospitalized were asked to write down a memory causing PTSD and then play 25 minutes of Tetris. Over the course of weeks, participating individuals attended group and individual therapy as well as other PTSD therapies in addition to playing the video game and recorded their flashbacks. As each flashback was recorded, its inspiring action was targeted with video game therapy.

The Results

Over time, each traumatic memory and flashback was targeted sequentially and after playing Tetris, its frequency was reduced dramatically, by an average of 64 percent. The number of flashbacks remained constant for untargeted flashback content during the same period.

For flashback content that was not targeted, regular treatment decreased frequency by slightly more than 10 percent. Additionally, the treatment had some effect on 16 of the 20 patients tested.

Why It Works

Patients who visualize a stressful memory activate the areas of the brain that deal with visuospatial processing. These same areas are utilized when playing Tetris. Both tasks require the same resources to be successful, which creates a conflict. When a patient remembers the content of a flashback, the associated memory trace becomes temporarily unstable. Scientists and researchers suspect that if the trace memory can be interfered with, the memory trace is weakened when it is stored again, which yields fewer flashbacks.

Further testing in a controlled environment is needed and other field testing at hospitals and complex PTSD treatment centers is needed, but the initial results are promising.

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