Weill Cornell Teams with Harvard in Major Study of Borderline Personality Disorder

Sep 19, 2000


A research team consisting of scientists from the Department of Psychiatry of Weill Cornell Medical College and the Department of Psychology of Harvard University has launched a major study of the enigmatic form of mental illness known as "borderline personality disorder" (BPD). The study is funded by the Swiss Personality Disorder Research Foundation, a foundation with offices in New York and anonymous financial support in Switzerland. The initial three-year grant is for $3 million; the study is expected to continue for 10 years at $1 million per year. This project is one of the largest ever undertaken to study borderline personality disorder.

BPD is a common illness affecting approximately two percent of the population. It is characterized by extremely unstable interpersonal relations, impulsive self-destructive behaviors (e.g., self-mutilation, suicidal behavior), chronic feelings of emptiness, intense anger and rage, as well as other symptoms. To date, most research on BPD has focused on treatment issues, but this new program of studies seeks to investigate the causes and development of this illness as well as its treatment.

The research team is under the general direction of the international authority Otto F. Kernberg, M.D., Director of the Personality Disorders Institute of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (Westchester Division) and Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. The team has four research cores.

One core will investigate and compare three different treatments of the disorder. It is under the direction of Dr. John F. Clarkin, Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell and Attending Psychologist at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital The three treatments are 1) supportive treatment as usual; 2) cognitive behavioral treatment, known as dialectical behavior therapy; and 3) psychodynamic therapy, or transference-focused therapy. All three groups will receive state-of-the-art medication. There will be about 120 subjects in the three groups.

A second core will be led by Mark F. Lenzenweger, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Laboratory of Experimental Psychopathology in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. This core will consist of several studies using the laboratory methods of experimental psychology and experimental psychopathology—a complex set of studies related to memory, attention, emotion, and personality processes as well as a prospective longitudinal study of these subjects.

The third core will be directed by Dr. David A. Silbersweig, Co-Director of the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory and Director of the Neuropsychiatry Program at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, and Dr. Michael Posner, Director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell. This core will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to probe brain functions and circuits that may be implicated in BPD.

Lastly, there will be an assessment core, responsible for recruitment and assessment of the BPD patients, under the direction of Dr. Pamela Foelsch of Weill Cornell.

"This extraordinarily exciting study is a wonderful example of the use of private philanthropy to advance our knowledge of brain and mind and enhance the healing arts," said Dr. Jack Barchas, Chairman of Weill Cornell's Department of Psychiatry. "The studies' leaders are immensely talented and creative individuals, and Dr. Kernberg is probably the world’s foremost authority on this disorder. A great number of people will benefit from this research."

Professor Lenzenweger of Harvard observed that elements of this collaboration had its earliest beginnings when he was on the faculty of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and was enabled by a small travel grant made available by former Cornell President Frank H. T. Rhodes and former Vice-President John R. Wiesenfeld to strengthen ties between the Ithaca campus and the medical college, then called Cornell University Medical College. "This is likely to become a landmark psychopathology study," he said, "and we hope that students in psychological science and the life sciences find many opportunities to join us in the coming decade of research."