The Neurobiology of Empathy in Borderline Personality Disorder

  • Luis H. Ripoll
  • Rebekah Snyder
  • Howard Steele
  • Larry J. Siever
Personality Disorders (C Schmahl, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Personality Disorders


We present a neurobiological model of empathic dysfunction in borderline personality disorder (BPD) to guide future empirical research. Empathy is a necessary component of interpersonal functioning, involving two distinct, parallel neural networks. One form of empathic processing relies on shared representations (SR) of others’ mental states, while the other is associated with explicit mental state attribution (MSA). SR processing is visceral and automatic, contributing to attunement, but also emotional contagion. MSA processing contributes to deliberate, perspectival forms of empathic understanding. Empathic dysfunction in BPD may involve hyper-reactivity of SR networks and impairment of MSA networks. Nevertheless, this empathic dysfunction is subtle, but contributes to interpersonal difficulties. Interaction between genetic factors and traumatic attachment stressors may contribute to development of BPD, with painful attachment insecurity and disorganization affecting SR and MSA network functioning. Future avenues for BPD research will include developmental assessment of attachment and neurobiological functioning under varying conditions.


Borderline personality disorder BPD Personality; Empathy Attachment theory Social cognition Aggression Social affectivity Neuropeptides Neurobiology Psychiatry 



No potential conflicts of interest relevant to this article were reported.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Luis H. Ripoll
    • 1
    • 2
  • Rebekah Snyder
    • 3
  • Howard Steele
    • 4
  • Larry J. Siever
    • 1
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry One Gustave L. Levy PlaceMount Sinai School of MedicineNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.New York Psychoanalytic InstituteNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyBarnard College, Columbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyNew School for Social ResearchNew YorkUSA
  5. 5.James J. Peters VA Medical CenterMental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC)BronxUSA

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