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Little is understood about borderline personality disorder. A devastating mental illness that affects 1 to 2 percent of Americans.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York, used the functional MRI (fMRI) to observe the prefrontal cortex of 16 patients with borderline personality disorder and 14 healthy control participants. Normally, the ability to track brain activity in the region of the brain the researchers were most interested in is difficult because of signal loss. To solve the problem the researchers developed an activation probe to eliminate much of the interference.

The participants were given a visual cue to either press or release a button. Participants were exposed to either negative words (that related to borderline psychology) or neutral words. The researchers were looking for how negative emotions affect the participants’ ability to perform the ‘button’ task.

As expected, negative emotional words caused participants with borderline personality disorder to have difficulty with the ‘button’ task. The borderline personality subjects ignored visual cues to stop pressing the button despite the cue to do so. At the same time, researchers observed heightened levels of activation in other areas of the brain that are linked to emotional processing for fear and anger.