Wars, catastrophes, heavy accidents and other traumatic incidents: Some survivors cannot get over such experience just like that. Even if the danger has passed they continue feeling it. They keep reliving it day and night time and again. The concentration is gone during the day and at night they can only dream of deep sleep without nightmares. Anxiety, depressions, guilt feelings and loss of interest – the psychosocial aftermath can be dramatic.
Trauma protects from trauma impact
Patients with posttraumatic stress disorders (PTBS) should experience a treatment and care as early as possible. The target is to get a grip on anxiety, sleep disorders, concentration problems and other symptoms, to overcome the memories and pictures and to integrate the trauma in his or her own life story. The therapy can take many years.
We know little about where the PTBS actually comes from. By means of imaging, researchers found out that the PTBS is associated with a reduced activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and with an increased activity of the amygdala which plays a role in digesting fear. The US brain researcher Jordan Grafman at the National Health Institute in Maryland confirmed those results. With MRI-examinations he showed that some brain damages of war veterans protect from developing PTBS (Nature Neuroscience 2007; 11: 232-237). When war veterans had brain damages in any of the before mentioned areas, they rarely developed PTBS.
Less flashbacks with Tetris
But most likely, only very few patients with PTBS suffer from a brain injury which could protect them from the implications of a trauma. The US research team around Craig Powell at the University of Texas in Austin/USA discovered a possible therapy. In animal experiments they fund out that body-own corticosteron can influence the development of PTBS (J. Neurosci. 2006; 26: 9560-9566). Corticosteron influenced the level of anxiety in mice if the active ingredient was injected on return to the starting point of the trauma.
Emily Holmes and other scientists at the Oxford University in Great Britain are on to a prevention strategy of completely different nature (PLoS ONE 4(1): e4153. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004153). In 40 test persons they produced a trauma by showing them traumatic pictures respectively movies of various injuries of different causes. After 30 minutes, the researchers let half of the test persons play the computer game Tetris for about 10 minutes, the second half did not play. During the following weeks, the Tetris playing test participants showed to have less flashbacks compared to the other participants.
The game competes with the horror pictures
Tetris is a kind of realtime puzzle. The player is supposed to manipulate colored figures respectively formed blocks. Those fall from up to down and should preferably be arranged to completely fill one block row without any gaps. Finished block rows vanish from the screen.
The scientists believe that the sensation of the formed blocks and the moving of the pieces compete with the pictures of the trauma in the sensorial part of the brain. This process could interfere in some manner with the type of building sensorial memories in the period after a trauma thus reducing the number of flashbacks experienced later.
“We know that it is possible to influence different types of memories during a period of up to six hours after the incident”, explains Catherine Deeprose who took part in the study. “As shown on healthy people, playing Tetris allows reducing flashback-like memories during this time frame without extinguishing the ability to give the incident a meaning.”
Feasible intervention or mere experiment?
To what extent it will be possible in practice to let a traumatized person play Tetris shortly after the traumatic incident remains problematic. But perhaps the results of the study might contribute to developing new strategies in crises intervention which might help to prevent developing a PTBS.