DOES BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER RUN IN FAMILIES?
The short answer is yes.
If a first degree relative (such as our mother or father) has BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), our chances of developing the disorder are about 1,000% greater than the average person’s (i.e. ten times greater).
Does This Mean The Disorder Is Genetic?
This fact in itself does not prove a genetic component to the disorder. For example, if our mother has BPD and we develop it ourselves during our adult life, it may be because having a mother with BPD has led us to have a very unstable childhood and it is this unstable childhood that has led us to develop BPD, not the genes we have inherited from our mother.
Although more research needs to be conducted in this area, currently researchers believe that our genes may play approximately a 50% role in the causation of BPD (this comes from studies comparing the incidence of BPD amongst identical twins with the incidence of BPD amongst non-identical twins; such ‘twin studies’ are intended to tease out environmental factors from genetic factors).
How Might Genes Increase A Person’s Risk Of Developing BPD?
Essentially, it is thought that the inheritance of certain genes have an adverse effect on the chemistry, structure and function of the brain and it is these adverse effects which heighten a person’s risk of developing BPD.
Let’s briefly look at each of these adverse effects in turn:
Adverse Effects On Brain Chemistry:
A current leading theory is that the way in which the brain uses the neurotransmitter serotonin is disrupted which may make a person more aggressive, more impulsive and more emotionally labile (i.e. much less able than the average person to control his/her emotional responses – this is also sometimes referred to as emotional dysregulation; in colloquial language, some, through lack of understanding of this very serious condition, may refer to such people as drama queens).
Adverse Effects On Brain Function:
A part of the brain called the executive system (which controls rational decision-making) is also thought to be disrupted in people with BPD.
Adverse Effects On Brain Structure:
Those with BPD are also thought, according to current research, to have damage to the area of the brain known as the amygdala (the amygdala is involved in emotional regulation) leading the individual to be highly prone to extremely intense emotional reactions, even over things that others may consider trivial or of no importance – essentially, their internal ’emotional reaction dial’ is set far too high.
To exacerbate the problem of dramatically high emotional reactivity yet further, the part of the brain that inhibits and controls emotional reactions (the frontal cortex) is also thought to be malfunctioning in BPD sufferers.
Because BPD is believed to be intimately associated with organic brain dysfunctions, this may explain why BPD sufferers often do not seem able to learn from experience.
However, it should be stressed again that research into this area is in an early stage and it is still not clear if the brain abnormalities described above are the result of BPD or the cause of it.
Notwithstanding the above, a large number of BPD sufferers DO recover. Currently, one of the most effective treatments is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).