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Personal Disord. 2016 Jan;7(1):72-9. doi: 10.1037/per0000144. Epub 2015 Oct 12.

What's in a face? Mentalizing in borderline personality disorder based on dynamically changing facial expressions.

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University Psychiatric Hospital UPC KU Leuven.
Faculty of Medicine, University of Leuven.
Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, University of Leuven.
Yale Child Study Center/Yale School of Medicine.


The mentalization-based approach to borderline personality disorder (BPD) argues that impairments in mentalizing are a key feature of BPD. Most previous research in this area has concentrated on potential impairments in facial emotion recognition in BPD patients. However, these studies have yielded inconsistent results, which may be attributable to methodological differences. This study aimed to address several limitations of previous studies by investigating different parameters involved in emotion recognition in BPD patients using a novel, 2-step dynamically changing facial expression paradigm, taking into account the possible influence of mood, psychotropic medication, and trauma exposure. Twenty-two BPD patients and 22 matched normal controls completed this paradigm. Parameters assessed were accuracy of emotion recognition, reaction time (RT), and level of confidence, both for first and full response and for correct and incorrect responses. Results showed (a) that BPD patients were as accurate in their first, but less accurate in their full emotion recognition than normal controls, (b) a trend for BPD patients to respond more slowly than normal controls, and (c) no significant difference in overall level of confidence between BPD patients and normal controls. Mood and psychotropic medication did not influence these results. Exposure to trauma in BPD patients, however, was negatively related to accuracy at full expression. Although further research is needed, results suggest no general emotion-recognition deficit in BPD patients using a dynamic changing facial recognition paradigm, except for a subgroup of BPD patients with marked trauma who become less accurate when they have to rely more on controlled, reflective processes.

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