Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a severe mental health condition marked by symptoms such as…
Alteration of a Single Hormone May Help Trigger Borderline Personality Disorder
People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have a life-impairing level of difficulty keeping key elements of their daily lives stable and functional. One common consequence of the disorder is a seriously reduced ability to maintain friendly, ongoing personal and social relationships. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, a team of German and Austrian researchers explored the impact that altered regulation of a naturally occurring hormone called oxytocin may have on the severity of the interpersonal problems that partially define the presence of borderline personality disorder.
Borderline Personality Disorder
The term borderline personality is a relic of a now-outdated psychiatric theory that held that people affected by BPD have a collection of symptoms that sit on the “border” of schizophrenia and certain other forms of mental illness. However, no one has come up with a more suitable replacement term, so mental health professionals have not renamed the disorder. In addition to an inability to maintain stable personal and social relationships, symptoms of the illness may include an inability to maintain sufficient control over thoughts and emotions, as well as an inability to maintain sufficient control over momentary impulses and involvement in reckless behavior. People affected by BPD have unusually high rates of suicidal thinking, suicidal behavior and self-harming behavior that’s not part of a suicide attempt. They also have elevated chances of developing additional mental health problems that include substance use disorder (substance abuse/addiction), anorexia and other eating disorders, anxiety disorders and depressive disorders (e.g., major depression, persistent depressive disorder).
Between 1 percent and 2 percent of all American adults have borderline personality disorder, according to figures compiled by the National Institute on Mental Health. The illness often first starts to appear in adolescence; however, current guidelines prevent doctors from making an official BPD diagnosis (or a diagnosis of any other personality disorder) in anyone under the age of 18. In part because of its association with suicide, borderline personality disorder is typically viewed as a severe mental illness.
Oxytocin is a hormone that’s primarily formed in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. When produced in non-stressful circumstances, it appears to have a major impact on the human ability to form lasting bonds with others (especially in the case of pregnant women forming a nurturing attachment to their developing children). However, people exposed to significant amounts of social stress may also have elevated body levels of oxytocin, as well as elevated levels of the body’s main stress hormone, cortisol. In normal circumstances, a rise in oxytocin levels in stressful circumstances may encourage an affected person to develop stronger bonds with other people.
Impact on BPD Symptoms
In the study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, researchers from Austria’s University of Innsbruck and Germany’s University of Berlin and Ludwig Maximilian University used a small-scale project involving 43 women to explore the potential impact of oxytocin regulation on borderline personality disorder’s interpersonal symptoms. Twenty-two of these women had diagnosed cases of BPD; the remaining 21 participants were unaffected by the disorder and acted as a comparison group. The researchers exposed the members of both groups to social situations designed to bring up feelings of isolation and rejection. In addition, they compared the oxytocin levels of both groups before and after this exposure.
The researchers found that, compared to the study participants unaffected by borderline personality disorder, the participants affected by the disorder experienced a substantially more negative emotional reaction to social rejection and isolation. In addition, they concluded that the participants with BPD were more likely to erroneously perceive rejection and isolation in social settings that did not actually exclude them. The researchers also concluded that, compared to the study participants unaffected by BPD, the participants affected by the disorder experienced relatively small changes in their oxytocin levels when exposed to social stress. Those people with borderline personality disorder most likely to experience an unusually small change in oxytocin levels in socially stressful conditions had extensive childhood histories of exposure to emotional abuse and/or physical abuse.
The study’s authors believe that they are the first researchers to demonstrate a difference in stress-related oxytocin regulation in people dealing with BPD. They also believe that the differences they observed may help explain why people with the disorder can develop such profound interpersonal problems with others. Further research will be needed to confirm or disprove the study’s conclusions.