This month marks the 4th anniversary of May as National Borderline Personality Awareness Month.
Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD, is a serious psychiatric illness which affects an estimated six percent of the population – approximately 18 million Americans. BPD is an excruciatingly painful emotional dysregulation disorder that can be both debilitating and deadly.
Affected individuals frequently first begin showing signs of the illness in early adulthood, often suffering for five years or longer before an accurate diagnosis is made. In that time period, BPD sufferers are 400 times more likely to commit suicide than non-affected peers. Affected individuals often cycle in and out of psychiatric care centers, encountering blame, shame, and stigma instead of the knowledgeable treatment BPD demands and deserves.
Symptoms of BPD include recurrent suicidal urges or attempts, chronic emotional instability, relational chaos, intense and persistent fear of abandonment (real or imagined), impulse control issues, rageful outbursts, and self-harm. While some BPD-affected individuals are able to function well in certain areas of life, others are unable to hold down a job or maintain basic relational connections. Medical professionals estimate that as many as one in five out of every patients admitted to psychiatric care centers are suffering from undiagnosed BPD.
With these statistics, it is clear that much work remains to be done to better understand the origins and development of BPD, and what type of treatment most effectively assists affected individuals with recovery.
What is already known is that BPD is often passed from parent to child, with a nearly 70 percent likelihood that an affected person has had a parent who also suffered from the illness.
What has not been understood to date is whether or not there are true grounds for treating BPD as a brain-based illness, but recent studies at Baylor College of Medicine and The Mount Sinai Medical Center are now changing that.
In 2008, Baylor College of Medicine conducted a first-of-its-kind research study that aimed to identify whether the brains of BPD-affected individuals function differently than the brains of non-affected peers. This study paired a BPD-affected individual with a non-affected partner to play a game of trust. Researchers used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to measure how the brains of BPD-affected individuals processed emotional and relational cues from their non-affected partners as the game progressed.
To do this, Baylor research scientists measured blood flow to the anterior insula of the brain, the region that is thought to be responsible for sending up a “red flag” that something is wrong. As the games of trust progressed, fMRI scans showed that when trust was broken, the anterior insula in the brains of non-affected individuals would register increased blood flow. No such activity was measured in the brains of BPD-affected game players, which for scientists was a clear signal that BPD sufferers do not process relational cues with the same acuity and intensity as non-affected peers.
The outcome of the Baylor study showed that BPD-affected individuals lacked the basic ability to pick up on social cues from their non-affected partners. Scientists now believe this difference in brain function is responsible for the persistent and often pervasive relational instability which BPD sufferers exhibit.
In a second study conducted just one year later in 2009 at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, research scientists snapped into place yet another piece of the brain-based puzzle that is BPD. In the Mount Sinai study, researchers set out to discover why BPD-affected individuals experienced chronic inability to self-regulate emotions. Paired against a control group of non-affected peers, 19 BPD sufferers viewed a series of pleasant and disturbing images, and researchers used fMRI scans to measure blood flow to the amygdala, or emotion processing center of the brain. When BPD-affected participants viewed the disturbing images, blood flow to their amygdala far outpaced amygdala responses of their non-affected control group peers.
Mount Sinai researchers are using this information to better understand the origin of the extreme emotional reactions BPD sufferers often display. The hope is that in the future, this information can be used to target medications and treatments to better serve the recovery needs of BPD-affected individuals.
Both the Baylor and the Mount Sinai studies offer good news to BPD-affected individuals and their loved ones. With now conclusive evidence that brain-based differences exist between BPD sufferers and non-affected individuals, a new and hopeful horizon for better treatment options for BPD sufferers is coming into view.
To read more about the Baylor study: CLICK HERE
To read more about the Mount Sinai study: CLICK HERE
If you or someone you love is suffering from BPD, or if you have or observe in a loved one symptoms that match those outlined in this post, I urge you to contact Southlake Counseling today for assistance in recovering from this painful but very treatable disease. Learn more at www.southlakecounseling.com.