Brain activation in response to overt and covert fear and happy faces in women with borderline personality disorder

Kathryn R Cullen, Lori L. LaRiviere, Nathalie Vizueta, Kathleen M Thomas, Ruskin H Hunt, Michael J. Miller, Kelvin O Lim, S. Charles Schulz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious condition involving emotion dysregulation. Past research has identified BPD-associated differences within fronto-limbic circuitry during conditions of processing negative emotion. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigms that incorporate overt and covert (masked) presentations of emotional stimuli can provide complementary information about neural systems underlying emotion processing (e.g., both slow [overt] and fast [covert; automatic] processing pathways). This study examined brain activation during processing of overt and covert presentations of emotional faces in 12 women with BPD and 12 age-matched healthy controls. To assess a range of emotional valence and arousal, we examined responses to fear, happy and neutral expressions. All participants underwent an fMRI scanning session in which participants passively viewed emotional faces. Scanning sessions consisted of 5 runs including: (1) Overt Fear (OF) versus Neutral (N), (2) Covert Fear (CF) versus Covert Neutral (CN), (3) Overt Happy (OH) versus N, (4) Covert Happy (CH) versus CN, and (5) N versus fixation. We compared whole-brain activation between groups for each run. In response to overt fear, BPD patients showed greater activation both in left amygdala and in several frontal cortical regions. There were no significant differences in brain activation in response to overt happy faces. In response to covert fear and covert happy stimuli, the BPD group also showed greater activation than controls in several regions including frontal and temporal cortical regions, as well as cerebellum and thalamus. These findings add to prior reports suggesting increased amygdala activation in BPD, but we found this only in the overt fear versus fixation condition. In this sample, BPD patients showed hyper-activation, rather than hypo-activation, of cortical regulatory regions during overt fear. Enhanced cortical recruitment in response to covert fear and happy faces in BPD could reflect a more extended response system in which stimuli that typically only activate automatic pathways are additionally tapping into cortical regulatory systems. The observation of this pattern both in response to fear and in response to happy presentations suggests that the effect of arousal may be as or more impactful than the effect of emotional valence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-331
Number of pages13
JournalBrain Imaging and Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, Springer Science+Business Media New York.


  • Amygdala
  • Backward masking
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Covert
  • Emotion
  • Overt
  • fMRI


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