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Brain scans reveal link between physical abuse and psychotic symptoms in borderline personality disorder

24 June 2015

Image of a child sat alone in a field

A team of scientists from Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh have found that childhood physical abuse may increase psychotic symptoms later in life for those with the common psychiatric condition borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Researchers measured the brain activation of 20 people diagnosed with BPD and 16 healthy volunteers in response to emotional stimuli. In this case, participants were shown a series of photographs of people with either a neutral or fearful expression.

The results, published in Translational Psychiatry, showed that there were subtle behavioural and brain activation differences between the two groups in terms of their responses to the emotional faces.

The research shows how the effects of childhood experience, specifically physical abuse and emotional abuse, impacted on brain activation in response to the fearful faces. They showed that individuals with BPD who had experienced physical abuse in childhood activated had greater activation of the brains "alterting" system to emotional stimuli. These individuals were also more likely to experience psychotic symptoms such as paranoia and hearing voices.

"The results of this study show a significant association between childhood trauma and brain activation in BPD, and suggest a link between childhood physical abuse and psychotic symptoms in adulthood" said Professor Jeremy Hall, director of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute at Cardiff University.

"Overall, it emphasises the importance of continuing biological research into BPD. This will help us learn more about the condition and to identify suitable therapies to help those suffering from it."

Borderline personality disorder is a common psychiatric condition, affecting between 1-3% of the population. It is the most prevalent personality disorder, and symptoms include emotional instability and impulsive behavior.

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust and the Chief Scientist Office in Scotland.

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