From Penicillin to Pulsars, sometimes great discoveries come from the most unlikely of sources. Here are three neat little advances in neuroscience that are thanks to a clunky, classic videogame – Tetris.
Part One: Preventing PTSD
Traumatic events can often evoke vivid memories and flashbacks in the immediate hours and days afterwards. Sometimes, these experiences persist, leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, in which these vivid memories begin to control a person’s behaviour, causing immense distress.
Of course, not everyone experiencing a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Research estimates that PTSD affects around 30% of (female*) sexual assault victims, around 9% of asylum seekers and around 4.8% of military personnel – the group most associated with PTSD in the mind of the public. Estimates vary wildly (5-64%) for citizens who have had treatment in intensive care, and the prevalence of PTSD in the general population is estimated at around 1.33%.
Several treatments for PTSD already exist, but these are not without problems. For instance, trauma-focussed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy only appears to be effective when commenced several months after the trauma, and attempts to use drugs to remove memories are controversial. Besides, prevention is better than cure, so a simple intervention to reduce the likelihood of PTSD developing would certainly be worthwhile.
Back in 2009, a team from the University of Cambridge, headed up by Professor Emily Holmes, did just that. Holmes reasoned that both Tetris and memories for our experiences have visual and spatial components. Playing Tetris well requires mental rotation and an awareness of space to fit the blocks together, whilst our memories hold objects, places and people together in a coherent scene. As visual attention is thought to have a limited capacity, and can be interrupted, Holmes argued that playing a visuospatial game such as Tetris would compete with traumatic memory, weakening it, and thus making flashbacks less likely to occur.
This idea seemed to be supported in the team’s experiment. Participants watched a traumatic film, in a procedure which has been accepted as a research model of PTSD, and then either sat and did nothing, or played some Tetris. Those who played Tetris reported experiencing fewer flashbacks to the film content than those in the no-task condition, both whilst playing Tetris, and during the week after the experiment. They also scored lower on an approved test used to measure PTSD symptoms. When all participants were given a memory test for the content of the traumatic film, both groups scored equally. The Tetris hadn’t made participants forget about the film, but it had weakened the film’s emotional impact.
However, it was unclear whether the spatial nature of Tetris was important, or whether the game had merely provided a distraction from the emotional impact of the film. To check this out, Holmes and the team repeated the experiment with an extra condition: those who did nothing, those who played Tetris, and those who completed a pub quiz. Those who did the pub quiz shortly after the film actually experienced more flashbacks than the other groups, but after a longer interval, the pub quiz had no effect on flashbacks at all. It seemed that the visually demanding aspect of Tetris was essential to have any effect on the memories.
In the era of smartphones, sitting someone down to play Tetris in the immediate aftermath of trauma seems less far-fetched than it might have done ten years ago. However, there will still be some situations in which a crime or traumatic event is not reported or dealt with until some time later. Even so, further research by Holmes and her team suggests that Tetris might still help by allowing memories to be reprocessed to remove their emotive impact.
In a further experiment, they extended the interval between watching the traumatic film and playing Tetris to 24 hours. This time, participants returned to the lab the following day after seeing the traumatic film, and were shown still images from the film, depicting the moment just before the trauma occurred. Again, the group who played Tetris after being reminded of the film had much fewer intrusive memories of the film than the group who played Tetris without a reminder, the group who had a reminder of the film but did not play Tetris, and the group who had neither the game or reminder, whilst memory for details of the film remained intact. It appeared that the greatest benefit occurred when memories of the traumatic film were evoked, and therefore more malleable.
Holmes is hopeful that her research could be used as a basic preventative measure in response to trauma. With the intervention currently being tested in A&E departments, Tetris could well become a staple feature of the 21st Century First Aid Kit.
* Data unavailable for males