Oxytocin and Borderline Personality Disorder

I saw this very recent article on the effects of Oxytocin and Borderline Personality Disorder and thought I would share. My immediate thought was, they are doing some wild things to study BPD, however this still means, they’re doing things to study BPD.

Oxytocin and Borderline Personality Disorder

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Often referred to as the “love drug” or “love hormone”, oxytocin has attracted increasing interest from researchers in recent years. It was originally shown to modulate aspects of social attachment and pair bonding in animals such as the female prairie vole, whose monogamous nature is dependent on oxytocin. Recent research in humans has shown that oxytocin increases trust behavior in economic exchanges and increases perception of trustworthiness in human faces, as well as promoting emotion recognition and altruism. This evidence inspired hopes among some, particularly in the mainstream media, that science might have found a possible pharmacological target for humans who show deficits in prosocial behavior.
But recent evidence has complicated the narrative a bit.

Research has shown that oxytocin plays a role in increased emotional reactivity to both positive and negative social cues. For example, one study from 2009 (Shamay-Tsoory et al) had participants engage in a game of chance with another player (the actor). In one condition, the actor was made to win more than the participant, evoking feelings of envy in the participant. In another condition, the actor was made to lose more than the participant, evoking feelings of “schaudenfrude” or gloating. Participants who were administered oxytocin before playing showed increases in both envy and schaudenfrude (if oxytocin was involved only in enhancing prosocial behavior, we would expect to see the opposite result.) Other research has shown oxytocin increased approach behavior or affiliative drive rather than regulating positive or negative responding per se. And one recent study showed that oxycotin led humans to self-sacrifice for their own group while showing increased aggression toward out-group members. The gist of this set of findings is that oxytocin doesn’t seem to bias individuals toward the positive, but rather can magnify whatever “stimuli” happens to be in someone’s attentional spotlight, be it bad or good, thereby generating an increase in corresponding positive or negative emotional responses.

Jennifer Bartz and colleagues (2010) were curious to explore whether oxytocin could “correct” deficits in pro-social behavior in individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a population famous for emotional instability, extreme impulsive behavior and identity confusion. People with BPD tend to be involved in intense, emotionally volatile relationships characterized by frequent arguing, repeated breakups and extreme aggression. This behavior often extends beyond their romantic relationships, as BPD individuals have also been shown to have difficulty cooperating with strangers. The existing body of research, Bartz et al suggested, offers up contrary predictions. On the one hand, oxytocin could be helpful in reducing the negative behaviors normally associated with BPD in favor of kinder, gentler behavior towards others. Alternatively, oxytocin might have increasingly negative effects for people with BPD, who are chronically concerned with (lack of) trust and abandonment and have difficulty cooperating with others. They’re essentially fixed in a constitutively negative state when it comes to social interactions and increased oxytocin could decrease prosocial behavior even further. Additionally (or alternatively), the oxytocin system might be dysregulated in BPD and could produce different responses (vs. control) to oxytocin as a result.

Bartz and company designed an experiment in which the participant was paired with a partner (in reality, a virtual “computer” partner) to engage in an economic game. In this game, the participant was to make one of two choices that involved financial rewards. The catch was that the amount of the reward was also dependent upon the choice that their “partner” made.

Both players clearly make the most money if they both choose strategy A. But because the player has to make the choice before the partner, the decision involves an element of trust (if your partner defects, you get nothing. If your partner trusts you and you defect, you get $4 and she gets nothing.)

So, what did they find?

Results showed the following:

1. BPD people trusted their partners in an economic game less after they received oxycotin than when they received a placebo.

2. Additionally, when asked if they would be more likely to make a hypothetical decision that would punish their partner, even when they knew their partner had extended trust toward them, they were more likely to punish after Oxytocin than placebo.

Administration of oxytocin to BPD individuals actually decreased pro-social behavior (and increased antisocial behavior). As the experimenters suggest, increasing the salience of a social cue that makes trust issues salient may have caused BPD participants to rely on their normal strategy for trust-dependent social interactions; that is, defect and punish the partner. Or it might have motivated approach/affiliative behaviors which triggered memory of past experiences gone awry and set off chronic and ever-present concerns about trust and rejection (e.g. “reject and punish them before they can do the same to me.”). Finally, the experimenters suggest the possibility that the oxytocin system itself may be dysregulated.

In short, the evidence doesn’t offer overwhelming support for the notion that exogenously-administered oxytocin will be a useful clinical treatment for people with pro-social deficits, such as those with BPD. Additionally, it’s difficult to imagine long-term benefits of oxytocin given that it’s half life when administered intranasally is only about three minutes. It’s been said that the most of the real action with regards to oxytocin is on the receptor end.


Something to think about for sure. Drugs have unpredictable side effects to begin with but couple this with the chemistry of someone that is already outside of normal reactivity? I’m almost surprised they thought this would help. It increases mood. People with BPD don’t have normal moods, by definition.
People with borderline aren’t only aggressive and disruptive. Our moods run the gamut of angry to ecstatic, albeit more rapidly and more intensely than normal. So by extension I would expect that not only would it heighten the good moods, but also the rest of our reactive moods.
Oxytocin, like any drug, works differently for different people, and in the best of cases elevates a good mood. To me this makes me wonder if ideas of trust, paranoia are linked to the same emotional receptors. It seems that the study did indicate that moods were elevated but these other aspects were impacted differently than in a neuro-typical brain. Perhaps this points to a different area of the affected borderline brain to be taken into consideration for synapses connections.
Moral of the story: Drugs are bad kids…. And apparently don’t mix well with personality disorders.  

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7 comments on “Oxytocin and Borderline Personality Disorder

  1. I don't think the "cure" of PD lies in meds. Do they help? Yes. Necessary evil? Yes, but you won't lead a productive life simply by popping a pill. You have to "want" it and WORK for it. The meds just make it a little bit less foggy.

  2. holy fuck that's weird!i always just presumed oxytocin = more trusting. i've wondered before about buying a spray and seeing what effect it has on me and even on a proper aspie i could access, but while there is evidence it helps aspies i don't know if it would elicit feelings of emotional attachment in me… i'm thinking probably not! :p

  3. ::laughs:: Seriously Res. Beepers WANT to be emotionally attached and clearly it doesn't have the desired effect. I can only imagine that the effect would not be as desired for you either. Then again, you have the opposite problem as I do, so may it WOULD inspire the proper affect as we seem to be working in oppositions here. Hahaha.

  4. The linked article is just the source of this article. Nothing more to read. You or I would recognize the game theory, but I don't think the test subjects were told as such.

  5. Incredibly fascinating. I'd never encountered results like that before. I suspect I am now off to do more research nowt hat my interests have been piqued…

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