“BPD patients often report problems establishing and maintaining stable relationships to significant others,” wrote Gregor Domes, Ph.D., of the University of Freiburg, Germany, and colleagues. “Their relationships are characterized by a pervasive fear of abandonment, anxiousness, mistrust, and conflicts, which can culminate in hostile and impulsive behavior.”
Domes and colleagues randomized 51 adult women with BPD and 51 age-matched women without BPD to receive either intranasal oxytocin or placebo 45 minutes prior to completing empathy assessments.
Women with BPD who received placebo scored significantly lower on tests measuring emotional empathy (feeling someone else’s pain), cognitive empathy (understanding someone else’s pain), and approach motivation than women in the control group taking placebo. Women with BPD were especially less responsive to positive emotions (pride, joy) than negative ones (sorrow, depression).
“It appears that BPD patients more easily empathize with people in aversive situations or in distress, while it is difficult for them to be empathic with people in positive social situations,” Domes and colleagues wrote. “This pattern is plausible, as negative emotions and situations are much more familiar to patients with BPD and thus negative emotions might be more easily accessible for BPD patients.”
Though oxytocin had no effect on cognitive empathy scores, the intranasal oxytocin was associated with significantly increased emotional empathy and approach motivation in both BPD and control participants. Further, the women with BPD reached a level of emotional empathy and approach motivation similar to that of the control group.
“These results could provide the starting point for designing controlled clinical trials, focusing on treatment efficiency using [oxytocin] as an add-on treatment to cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy in BPD,” Domes and colleagues concluded.
For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Experts Offer Guidance for Treating Patients With Borderline Personality Disorder” and the Psychiatric Services article "Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder: Is Supply Adequate to Meet Public Health Needs?"