Clinical psychologist receives award for new study on patients with borderline personality disorder

Don Campbell

A study looking at treatment outcomes for patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) has landed a U of T Scarborough clinical psychologist and neuroscientist a prestigious award. 

Associate Professor Anthony C. Ruocco from the Department of Psychology received the 2017 Young Investigator Research Award from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in recognition of a neuroimaging study he completed on self-harming patients with BPD.

“It’s an honour, but more importantly this highlights the foundation’s commitment to investing in neurobiological research that may have an impact on suicide prevention,” he says.

BPD is a psychiatric disorder characterized by emotional dysregulation and impulsivity that can have a range of self-damaging consequences such as binge-eating, substance use problems and different forms of risk-taking behaviour. It can also manifest itself as self-harming behaviour, like hitting or cutting oneself.

Ruocco’s study examined 29 patients with BPD all with a history of self-harming behaviour who were given a mindfulness-based talk therapy called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). The patients were monitored before and after the seven-month study using a novel imaging technology that uses infrared light to image the brain.

The research found that a certain region of the brain involved in impulse control, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, showed increases in activity in parallel with reductions in self-harm through treatment. Also, areas of activation in the prefrontal cortex were lower in patients prior to treatment, but activation in these areas increased after treatment, especially in patients who had the greatest reductions in self-harming behaviour.

He says the goal is to replicate the findings in future research on another group of patients by focusing on the same areas of the brain that were identified as regions of interest in the original study.

“The hope is that eventually clinicians can use findings such as these to make treatment decisions based on a patient’s likelihood of improving given their pre-treatment levels of brain activation,” says Ruocco.

The AFSP award was presented at the recent American Association of Suicidology Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, where the results of the study and his related research were presented.