Abnormal Brain Chemistry In BPD Sufferers And Its Effect On Behavior.

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Various research studies have provided evidence to suggest that borderline personality disorder (BPD) sufferers may have abnormal levels of the following brain chemicals (also called neurotransmitters), blood fats and hormones :

Acetylcholine :

This brain chemical activates muscles and is also thought to be involved in learning, memory and mood regulation. Studies (e.g. Gurvits et al., 2000) suggest its levels may be abnormal in BPD sufferers. Research also suggests that elevated levels of it cause more serious and intense symptoms of depression in individuals with BPD when compared to individuals who do not have BPD.

Adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) :

This is a hormone that also acts as a brain chemical and it plays a major role in the ‘fight / flight’ response. The visceral functions it affects include raising blood pressure, speeding up the heart rate, expanding air passages in the lungs, dilating the pupils of the eyes, pumping increased amounts of blood to the muscles and changing the body’s metabolic rate in order to increase blood glucose levels.

Excessive amounts of adrenaline can also cause extremely distressing feelings of intense anxiety.

Cholesterol :

Cholesterol is a blood fat. One study (Atmatca et al., 2002) has found levels of cholesterol to be low in sufferers of BPD. Furthermore, various studies have found low levels of cholesterol to be associated with impulsivity, aggression and suicidal thinking.

Corticotropin-Releasing Factor (CRF) :

Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) is a hormone and corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) testing is used as a way of diagnosing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) hyperactivity.

The level of this hormone has been found to positively correlate with the degree of severity of childhood trauma the individual has experienced (Lee et al., 2005), adding further weight to the theory that early life stress (commonly found in BPD sufferers) is associated with stress hormone abnormalities in later life. The hormone acts on the adrenal glands causing them to release adrenaline.

Another study (Rinne et al., 2002) of BPD patients who had been chronically abused as children also found elevated levels of CRF in these individuals.

Cortisol :

Cortisol is a major stress hormone and the body produces it in large quantities when it is in a state of ‘fight or flight.’ A study involving 22 women with BPD found that those women who had been diagnosed with BPD and (co-morbidly) with PTSD, and who had, additionally, experienced childhood trauma, had significantly elevated levels of cortisol in their blood-stream than controls.

Dopamine :

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that regulates feelings of pleasure and plays a major part in the motivational constituent of our reward-motivated behavior. It is also involved with movement of the body and attention. It has been inferred that BPD sufferers may have dopamine related problems from the finding that some BPD patients are helped by taking medication that blocks dopamine (Friedel, 2004).

G Protein :

G proteins act as molecular switches that transmit signals from stimuli outside the cell to the cell’s interior. One study suggests that people suffering from BPD may have a gene variation of the G protein. Another study found that a gene variation of the G protein may also be associated with individuals who self-mutilate (self-mutilation is a symptom that is very common in BPD sufferers).

Leptin :

This is a hormone that acts to suppress appetite and burn fat. One study has found levels of leptin to be very low in BPD sufferers who are feeling suicidal and also in those who had symptoms of aggression and / or impulsivity.

Serotonin :

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in learning, memory, mood, thought and behavior. Research has found (e.g. Hansenne, 2002) that BPD sufferers frequently display symptoms indicative of serotonergic dysregulation, including problems controlling impulses, difficulties regulating mood, aggression and suicidal ideation.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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