Intact Classical Fear Conditioning to Interpersonally Threatening Stimuli in Borderline Personality Disorder

Psychopathology. 2020;53(2):84-94. doi: 10.1159/000507794. Epub 2020 Jun 12.


Threat hypersensitivity is regarded as a central mechanism of deficient emotion regulation, a core feature of patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Here, we employed a classical fear-conditioning protocol in which interpersonally threatening, interpersonally non-threatening, and non-social (neutral) visual stimuli were predictive of an aversive auditory stimulus in a sample of 23 medication-free adult female patients with BPD and 21 age- and IQ-matched healthy women. The results did not confirm the hypothesized enhanced and prolonged conditioned skin conductance responses (SCR) and subjective stress and expectancy ratings to interpersonally threatening stimuli in patients with BPD compared to healthy women. Patients with BPD generally expected the aversive stimulus more often irrespective of stimulus category and conditioning. Furthermore, patients with BPD showed larger conditioned SCR to interpersonally non-threatening and neutral than interpersonally threatening stimuli, while interpersonally threatening stimuli elicited higher SCR compared to non-threatening or neutral stimuli in healthy controls. Together with previous studies, the results suggest no alterations in fear conditioning to generally aversive stimuli in BPD. Further studies using stimuli with BPD-specific topics, such as abandonment or rejection, and/or to investigate more interpersonal forms of learning, such as observational or instructed conditioning, are urgently needed to further elucidate the mechanisms involved in the etiology and maintenance of threat hypersensitivity in BPD.

Keywords: Borderline personality disorder; Classical fear conditioning; Threat hypersensitivity.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / psychology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Young Adult