Young people with borderline personality disorder respond differently to unpleasant imagery

Young people with borderline personality disorder respond differently to unpleasant imagery

27 June 2018


A new study has found that young people in the early stages of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) have abnormalities in the way they process and respond to unpleasant stimuli.

Borderline personality disorder affects about 3% of young people and is characterised by unstable emotions, relationship problems, impulsive behaviour and problems with identity and self-image.

The research, published by Dr Katherine Thompson from Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, and the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Youth Mental Health, in collaboration with Orygen’s Professor Andrew Chanen, examined the emotional responses of 20 young people with BPD and 20 young healthy people when exposed to images with positive, neutral and negative connotations.

Dr Thompson said that by measuring skin conductance (which tests how well the skin conducts electricity) and eye muscle movements the research team was able to monitor the emotional response of the participants when shown a range of images. The images ranged from neutral images such as a book or a light bulb, pleasant images such as horse or ice-cream sundae, and unpleasant images such as a snake or a snarling dog.

 “Based on other studies we hypothesised that young people with BPD would over-react to unpleasant stimuli but, surprisingly, this wasn’t what we found,” Dr Thompson said.

“What we did find was that the young people with BPD initially under-reacted to viewing unpleasant or scary images– they weren’t as stressed as we thought they would be.”

The results were published in the May issue of the journal Psychiatry Research.

Dr Thompson said another component of the study was a questionnaire participants completed in which they rated their distress after being shown different images.

"Also surprising was that, in the questionnaires, young people with BPD reported being more distressed and having fewer positive emotions and less emotional control compared to the healthy control group,” Dr Thompson said.

“This might suggest that young people with BPD only over-react when they are exposed to stimuli that is considered to be particularly self-relevant to those with the disorder – such as abandonment and rejection,” she said.