Facial emotion processing in patients with borderline personality disorder as compared with healthy controls: an fMRI and ECG study

Radimecká M, Látalová A, Lamoš M, Jáni M, Bartys P, Damborská A, Theiner P, Linhartová P.

Borderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. 2024 Feb 16;11(1):4. doi:10.1186/s40479-024-00245-4. PMID: 38360712; PMCID: PMC10870473.


22 Feb 2024

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Background: Maladaptive behaviors and interpersonal difficulties in patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) seem connected to biased facial emotion processing. This bias is often accompanied by heightened amygdala activity in patients with BPD as compared to healthy controls. However, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies exploring differences between patients and healthy controls in facial emotion processing have produced divergent results. The current study explored fMRI and heart rate variability (HRV) correlates of negative facial emotion processing in patients with BPD and healthy controls.

Methods: The study included 30 patients with BPD (29 females; age: M = 24.22, SD = 5.22) and 30 healthy controls (29 females; M = 24.66, SD = 5.28). All participants underwent the "faces" task, an emotional face perception task, in an fMRI session simultaneously with ECG. In this task, participants are presented with emotional expressions of disgust, sadness, and fear (as a negative condition) and with the same pictures in a scrambled version (as a neutral condition).

Results: We found no differences in brain activity between patients with BPD and healthy controls when processing negative facial expressions as compared to neutral condition. We observed activation in large-scale brain areas in both groups when presented with negative facial expressions as compared to neutral condition. Patients with BPD displayed lower HRV than healthy controls in both conditions. However, there were no significant associations between HRV and amygdala activity and BPD symptoms.

Conclusion: The results of this study indicate no abnormal brain activity during emotional facial processing in patients with BPD. This result contrasts with previous studies and more studies are needed to clarify the relationship between facial emotion processing and brain activity in patients with BPD. Possible reasons for the absence of brain activity differences are discussed in the study. Consistent with previous findings, patients showed lower HRV than healthy controls. However, HRV was not associated with amygdala activity and BPD symptoms.

Keywords: Borderline personality disorder; Faces task; Facial emotion processing; Heart rate variability; Negative facial expressions; fMRI.

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