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What Causes Borderline Personality Disorder?

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In the past, people with personality disorders were often considered beyond help. Ongoing scientific research has changed that mindset so that we now know that personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can be effectively treated. 

Though the causes of Borderline Personality Disorder are still not completely understood by psychologists, it is likely that a combination of genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and brain chemistry trigger the onset of BPD. Described below are some probable causes of BPD. 

Traumatic Environments

People diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder report higher rates of childhood neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and sexual assault than people who do not have BPD. Someone who has grown up in an environment with dismissive or scornful parents also has a slightly higher risk of developing BPD. It appears that unsafe and unloving conditions in the home can engender this disorder. Simply having a mother who screams can increase the risk of BPD by a factor of three.

A traumatic experience is any shocking event that goes against a person’s construction of the world and makes them feel completely powerless within it. Because Borderline Personality Disorder is in many ways similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), some researchers have speculated that trauma — especially trauma that occurs during childhood — plays a major part in the development of BPD. Conversely, people with BPD have a greater risk of developing PTSD if a traumatic event occurs. 


Some studies have shown that pairs of identical twins often develop Borderline Personality Disorder, suggesting that genes play a major role in the manifestation of BPD. Scientists have isolated a gene that they believe plays a part in the development of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is similar in some respects to BPD. When this gene malfunctions, a person develops Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

There might be a similar gene or set of genes that dictate whether Borderline Personality Disorder is present. In some cases, it appears that BPD has been passed down from generation to generation. 

Neurochemistry and Brain Activity

Low levels of serotonin are present in many mental health disorders, from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to severe depression. Borderline Personality Disorder is no different. If the brain is not producing or absorbing enough serotonin, then it may be difficult for a person to control his or her impulses and maintain a balanced mood. They may feel weak or sluggish and, as a result, seek excitement from dangerous activity.

In the parts of the brain that regulate mood and control impulses, people with BPD show less activity in general. This may mean that not only are neurotransmitter levels low, but the function in the brain in those areas is generally slower or less than average.   

While genetics, experience, and physiognomy may all “cause” Borderline Personality Disorder, there is also evidence that BPD isn’t caused by one thing but by a cluster of things. According to a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, 85 percent of people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder also meet the criteria for another mood disorder, personality disorder, or other mental illness.

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