Background: Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by greater intensity of reactions to unpleasant emotional cues and a slower-than-normal return of these responses to baseline. Habituation is defined as decreased response to repeated stimulation. Affect-modulated startle (AMS), a translational psychophysiological approach, is mediated by the amygdala and used to study emotion processing in both humans and animals. This is the first study to examine the specificity of habituation anomalies in BPD during passive emotional and neutral picture processing. Methods: A total of 90 participants were studied: patients with BPD (n = 35), patients with schizotypal personality disorder (n = 26; included as a psychopathological comparison group), and healthy control subjects (n = 29). Participants received rigorous clinical assessments, and patients were unmedicated. AMS was examined during a series of intermixed unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant pictures. Results: Compared with the other groups, patients with BPD showed greater overall AMS during unpleasant pictures and prolonged habituation of startle amplitude during unpleasant pictures from early to later trials. The groups did not differ in AMS during neutral or pleasant pictures or self-reported picture valence. Among the patients with BPD, prolonged habituation to unpleasant pictures was associated with greater symptom severity and suicidal/self-harming behavior. Conclusions: These findings 1) indicate that abnormal processing of and habituation to unpleasant pictures is observed in BPD but not schizotypal personality disorder, suggesting that these deficits are not simply characteristics of personality disorders in general; 2) are consistent with studies showing deficient amygdala habituation to unpleasant pictures in BPD; and 3) have significant implications for clinical assessment and treatment of BPD, e.g., alternative therapies for BPD such as gradual exposure to unpleasant emotional stimuli or amygdala neurofeedback may aid habituation deficits.
- Affective startle modulation
- Borderline personality disorder
- Schizotypal personality disorder
- Startle eye-blink