UW News

January 15, 2004

Borderline personality treatment is focus of new studies

UW researchers who have developed the most effective treatment for a serious psychiatric condition called borderline personality disorder are looking for more than 200 Puget Sound residents to volunteer for a series of new studies designed to refine the therapy.

Psychology professor Marsha Linehan, director of the Behavioral Research & Therapy Clinics, has received more than $8.2 million in funding for a series of studies and is looking for 236 people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, as well as 30 normal, healthy people, to participate in the research as volunteer subjects.

People with borderline personality disorder have a multiple spectrum of disorders that are marked by emotional instability, difficulty in maintaining close relationships, eating disorders, chronic uncertainty about life goals and impulsive and addictive behaviors such as using drugs and alcohol.

People with the disorder also have a tendency to injure themselves and threaten or attempt suicide. They have a very high suicide rate and have major impact on the medical system, being among the highest users of emergency and in-patient medical services. An estimated 5.8 million to 8.7 million Americans, primarily women, suffer from borderline personality disorder.

“Borderline personality disorder is a disorder of emotion regulation and we now have a treatment for a group of people who are typically told they can’t be treated,” said Linehan.

That treatment, developed by Linehan, is called dialectical behavior therapy. It is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that balances change and acceptance. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated in six previous studies.

The new studies are designed to distill the essential elements of dialectical behavior therapy to make it work effectively in a community health setting and to treat specialized populations who also have a heroin addiction or an eating disorder.

To participate in one of the studies, people need to live close enough to the UW’s Seattle campus — roughly the area from Tacoma to Everett — so they can travel there to receive treatment once or twice a week. They must be between the ages of 18 and 60 and have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. All persons accepted as subjects will receive outpatient treatment and only can participate in one study. Volunteers can be self-referred or referred by a therapist, family member or friend.

One hundred women who have a long-standing pattern of using inappropriate behavior to get out of emotional pain are needed for one study being funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Potential participants also must not have any psychotic or seizure disorder.

A second study, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, requires 86 men and women who are addicted to heroin and have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. None currently can be receiving methadone or another opiate replacement. Half of the people in this study will receive suboxone, a new replacement drug, and dialectical behavioral therapy while the other half will receive suboxone plus group and individual counseling.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse also is funding a study that is designed to assess people’s ability to regulate their emotions and to uncover physiological markers of emotional regulation and disregulation. The researchers need 30 men and women diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and who are stable on methadone or some other opiate replacement. In addition, 30 normal, healthy men and women are needed for the study. Subjects in this study will be hooked up to heart rate monitors and have skin conductivity tests.

A fourth study, funded by the Borderline Personality Disorder Research Foundation, is designed to develop a treatment for women with borderline personality disorder who have an eating disorder. Twenty women who are having a significant problem with bingeing and purging are needed.

People who would like to volunteer for any of the studies or have questions should contact the Behavior Research & Therapy Clinics at 206-543-2782 or check the Web at http://www.brtc.psych.washington.edu/.