Study diagnoses teen mental illness
A UH professor is conducting a new research study with the purpose of detecting borderline personality traits in adolescents before it puts these individuals at risk for interpersonal and relational complications.
“Theory of Mind and Emotion Regulation Difficulties in Adolescents with Borderline Traits” is led by Carla Sharp, director of the developmental psychopathology lab clinical psychology, and indicated borderline personality traits in 23 percent of 111 inpatient adolescents.
“We started a research program at the Menninger Clinic at the adolescent treatment program with some collaborators including Peter Fonagy with University College London and some others,” Sharp said.
“When I left Baylor, I continued that research program with the people there and added some of my UH grad students. They make the rest of the team.”
Sharp focused her doctorate and post doctorate on theories of mind, or mentalizing how a person attributes thoughts and feelings to other people in order to explain or predict behavior.
“I became interested in borderline personality disorder because I was involved in a study of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) in adults. But, because I am a child person, I am a developmental psychopathologist,” Sharp said.
“I am interested in studying borderline personality traits in kids because I believe it’s important to look at some of the precursors to adult BPD and try to catch them in children early before these personality patterns become entrenched.”
The study, which took two years to complete, had the 111 participants view a film with different characters whose feelings or thoughts they were asked to calculate and interpret.
“There are many different tasks that we use in psychology to probe social cognition. This (film) task is a brand new one that was developed by Isabel Dziobek in Germany,” Sharp said. “We are the first group to be using it in adolescents and we’re the first group to be using it in relation to BPD.
“The reason it’s such a neat task is because it’s got more ecological validity, which means that it’s more real than self report,” Sharp said.
“If you just ask people in a self-report measure if they are good at mentalizing or not, you may get socially desirable responses and you may get all kinds of bias. But, when you ask them to look at movie clips and they need to say what a person thinks or feels, it becomes harder to betray their real mentalizing capacity.”
Every inpatient at Menninger Clinic is properly examined and evaluated with the inclusion of film testing. Participants for this study elected to have their results used for clinical research purposes. With doing clinical studies comes a complication university labs do not typically face.
“The research is not the priority and it shouldn’t be the priority. The clinical intervention and treatment is the priority,” Sharp said.
The research team’s next step is to use brain-imaging techniques, such as functional MRI, in collaboration with the film task in hopes of deepening the findings. However, these techniques can be costly and somewhat challenging.
“The fMRI is complicated to do. It requires a new team of researchers to pull up an fMRI study,” Sharp said.
“We would need more money coming in order to do it. But certainly this task has been done in fMRI so we’ve got the precedent to work from. The biggest challenge is to have the funding to run the study.”
BPD patients often experience difficulties with important parts of human interaction such as relationships, social support and connectedness. Sharp said her main goal in the study is to help detect and remedy some of these troubles.
“If we can have a better understanding of the social information processing involved in BPD, we are able to guide patients better in how to form and maintain interpersonal relationships. What happens in BPD is a breakdown of relationships; these people have a difficulty maintaining them,” Sharp said.
“If we can understand a bit better about what goes wrong in their thinking in social contests, we may be able to help them sustain better relationships with people.”