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Can J Psychiatry. 2006 Mar;51(3):131-42.

The neuropsychological correlates of borderline personality disorder and suicidal behaviour.

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  • 1St Michael's Hospital, Toronto, Ontario.



In subjects with borderline personality disorder (BPD), compared with subjects who attempted suicide, to review neuropsychological (NP) function that may predispose to suicidal behaviour along a continuum of high and low lethality.


We undertook electronic searches of MEDLINE, PsycINFO, EMBASE, Biosos Reviews, and Cinhal. The searches were restricted to English-language publications from 1985 onward. The search terms borderline personality disorder, suicide, suicide attempt, self-harm behaviour, neuropsychological, executive function (EF), neurocognitive, and neuropsychological function produced 29 neuropsychology studies involving BPD and 7 neuropsychology studies of suicide attempters, regardless of psychiatric diagnosis.


Of the BPD studies, 83% found NP impairment in one or more cognitive domains, irrespective of depression, involving specific or generalized deficits linked to the dorsolateral prefrontal and orbitofrontal regions. The functions most frequently reported (in 71% to 86% of BPD studies) are response-inhibitory processes affecting executive function performance that requires speeded attention and visuomotor skills. Decision making and visual memory impairment are also most frequently affected; 60% to 67% of BPD studies report attentional impairment, verbal memory impairment, and visuospatial organizational impairment. Least affected processes in BPD appear to involve spatial working memory, planning, and possibly, IQ. The similarities in NP deficits found in BPD and suicide-attempt studies involve decision making and Trails performances. BPD studies, however, reflect more frequent impairment on the Stroop Test and Wisconsin Card Sort Test performance than the suicide-attempt studies, whereas verbal fluency appears to be more frequently impaired in those attempting suicide.


Impaired EF and disinhibitory processes, as indicated by verbal fluency, Trails, and Stroop performance, primarily associated with dorsolateral prefrontal cortical regions may represent a dominant executive pathway to suicide attempt. A primary motivational inhibitory pathway involving conflictual, affective, and reflexive decision-making processes associated with orbitofrontal brain regions, in combination with significant cognitive rigidity, may influence the repetitive expression of self-harm or low-lethality suicidal behaviour. The hypothesis of a specific trait-like cognitive vulnerability for suicidal behaviour involving dysregulatory, disinhibiting pathways awaits confirmation.

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