Background: Traumatic life events are generally more common in patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) than in non-patients or patients with other personality disorders. This study investigates whether exposure to life events moderates the genetic architecture of BPD features. As the presence of genotype-environment correlation (rGE) can lead to spurious findings of genotype-environment interaction (G × E), we also test whether BPD features increase the likelihood of exposure to life events.
Method: The extent to which an individual is at risk to develop BPD was assessed with the Personality Assessment Inventory - Borderline features scale (PAI-BOR). Life events under study were a divorce/break-up, traffic accident, violent assault, sexual assault, robbery and job loss. Data were available for 5083 twins and 1285 non-twin siblings. Gene-environment interaction and correlation were assessed by using structural equation modelling (SEM) and the co-twin control design.
Results: There was evidence for both gene-environment interaction and correlation. Additive genetic influences on BPD features interacted with the exposure to sexual assault, with genetic variance being lower in exposed individuals. In individuals who had experienced a divorce/break-up, violent assault, sexual assault or job loss, environmental variance for BPD features was higher, leading to a lower heritability of BPD features in exposed individuals. Gene-environment correlation was present for some life events. The genes that influence BPD features thus also increased the likelihood of being exposed to certain life events.
Conclusions: To our knowledge, this study is the first to test the joint effect of genetic and environmental influences and the exposure to life events on BPD features in the general population. Our results indicate the importance of both genetic vulnerability and life events.