Skip to main content Accessibility help

Life events and borderline personality features: the influence of gene–environment interaction and gene–environment correlation

  • M. A. Distel (a1), C. M. Middeldorp (a1) (a2), T. J. Trull (a3), C. A. Derom (a4), G. Willemsen (a1) and D. I. Boomsma (a1)...



Traumatic life events are generally more common in patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) than in non-patients or patients with other personality disorders. This study investigates whether exposure to life events moderates the genetic architecture of BPD features. As the presence of genotype–environment correlation (rGE) can lead to spurious findings of genotype–environment interaction (G×E), we also test whether BPD features increase the likelihood of exposure to life events.


The extent to which an individual is at risk to develop BPD was assessed with the Personality Assessment Inventory – Borderline features scale (PAI-BOR). Life events under study were a divorce/break-up, traffic accident, violent assault, sexual assault, robbery and job loss. Data were available for 5083 twins and 1285 non-twin siblings. Gene–environment interaction and correlation were assessed by using structural equation modelling (SEM) and the co-twin control design.


There was evidence for both gene–environment interaction and correlation. Additive genetic influences on BPD features interacted with the exposure to sexual assault, with genetic variance being lower in exposed individuals. In individuals who had experienced a divorce/break-up, violent assault, sexual assault or job loss, environmental variance for BPD features was higher, leading to a lower heritability of BPD features in exposed individuals. Gene–environment correlation was present for some life events. The genes that influence BPD features thus also increased the likelihood of being exposed to certain life events.


To our knowledge, this study is the first to test the joint effect of genetic and environmental influences and the exposure to life events on BPD features in the general population. Our results indicate the importance of both genetic vulnerability and life events.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: M. A. Distel, Ph.D., Department of Biological Psychology, VU University Amsterdam, Van der Boechorststraat 1, 1081 BT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. (Email:


Hide All
APA (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Association: Washington, DC.
Bandelow, B, Krause, J, Wedekind, D, Broocks, A, Hajak, G, Ruther, E (2005). Early traumatic life events, parental attitudes, family history, and birth risk factors in patients with borderline personality disorder and healthy controls. Psychiatry Research 134, 169179.
Boomsma, DI, de Geus, EJC, Vink, JM, Stubbe, JH, Distel, MA, Hottenga, JJ, Posthuma, D, van Beijsterveld, CEM, Hudziak, JJ, Bartels, M, Willemsen, G (2006). Netherlands Twin Register: from twins to twin families. Twin Research and Human Genetics 9, 849857.
Boomsma, DI, Martin, NG (2002). Gene–environment interaction. In Biological Psychiatry (ed. D'Haenen, J. A., den Boer, J. A. and Willner, P.), pp. 181187. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: Chichester.
Boomsma, DI, Vink, JM, van Beijsterveldt, TC, de Geus, EJC, Beem, AL, Mulder, EJ, Derks, EM, Riese, H, Willemsen, GA, Bartels, M, van den Berg, M, Kupper, NH, Polderman, TJ, Posthuma, D, Rietveld, MJ, Stubbe, JH, Knol, LI, Stroet, T, van Baal, GC (2002). Netherlands Twin Register: a focus on longitudinal research. Twin Research 5, 401406.
Caspi, A, McClay, J, Moffitt, TE, Mill, J, Martin, J, Craig, IW, Taylor, A, Poulton, R (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science 297, 851854.
Cederlof, R, Friberg, L, Lundman, T (1977). The interactions of smoking, environment and heredity and their implications for disease etiology. A report of epidemiological studies on Swedish twin registries. Acta Medica Scandinavica (Suppl.) 612, 1128.
De Moor, MHM, Distel, MA, Trull, TJ, Boomsma, DI (2009). Assessment of borderline personality disorder features in population samples: is the Personality Assessment Inventory-Borderline Features scale measurement invariant across sex and age? Psychological Assessment 21, 125130.
Derom, C, Derom, R (2005). The East Flanders Prospective Twin Survey. In Multiple Pregnancy: Epidemiology, Gestation and Perinatal Outcome (ed. Blickstein, I. and Keith, L. G.), pp. 3947. Taylor & Francis: Oxford.
Derom, CA, Vlietinck, RF, Thiery, EW, Leroy, FOG, Fryns, JP, Derom, RM (2006). The East Flanders Prospective Twin Survey (EFPTS). Twin Research and Human Genetics 9, 733738.
Distel, MA, Hottenga, JJ, Trull, TJ, Boomsma, DI (2008 b). Chromosome 9: linkage for borderline personality disorder features. Psychiatric Genetics 18, 302307.
Distel, MA, Ligthart, L, Willemsen, G, Nyholt, DR, Trull, TJ, Boomsma, DI (2007). Personality, health and lifestyle in a questionnaire family study: a comparison between highly cooperative and less cooperative families. Twin Research and Human Genetics 10, 348353.
Distel, MA, Trull, TJ, Boomsma, DI (2009 a). The genetic epidemiology of borderline personality disorder. In Borderline Personality Disorder: New Research (ed. Jackson, M. H. and Westbrook, L. F.), pp. 131. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.: Hauppauge, NY.
Distel, MA, Trull, TJ, Derom, CA, Thiery, EW, Grimmer, MA, Martin, NG, Willemsen, G, Boomsma, DI (2008 a). Heritability of borderline personality disorder features is similar across three countries. Psychological Medicine 38, 12191229.
Distel, MA, Trull, TJ, Willemsen, G, Vink, JM, Derom, CA, Lynskey, MT, Martin, NG, Boomsma, DI (2009 b). The five factor model of personality and borderline personality disorder: a genetic analysis of comorbidity. Biological Psychiatry 66, 11311138.
Helgeland, MI, Torgersen, S (2004). Developmental antecedents of borderline personality disorder. Comprehensive Psychiatry 45, 138147.
Horesh, N, Ratner, S, Laor, N, Toren, P (2008). A comparison of life events in adolescents with major depression, borderline personality disorder and matched controls: a pilot study. Psychopathology 41, 300306.
Johnson, JG, Cohen, P, Brown, J, Smailes, EM, Bernstein, DP (1999). Childhood maltreatment increases risk for personality disorders during early adulthood. Archives of General Psychiatry 56, 600606.
Jovev, M, Jackson, HJ (2006). The relationship of borderline personality disorder, life events and functioning in an Australian psychiatric sample. Journal of Personality Disorders 20, 205217.
Kendler, KS, Aggen, SH, Czajkowski, N, Roysamb, E, Tambs, K, Torgersen, S, Neale, MC, Reichborn-Kjennerud, T (2008). The structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for DSM-IV personality disorders: a multivariate twin study. Archives of General Psychiatry 65, 14381446.
Kendler, KS, Eaves, LJ (1986). Models for the joint effect of genotype and environment on liability to psychiatric illness. American Journal of Psychiatry 143, 279289.
Kendler, KS, Gardner, CO, Prescott, CA (2003). Personality and the experience of environmental adversity. Psychological Medicine 33, 11931202.
Kendler, KS, Neale, MC, Maclean, CJ, Heath, AC, Eaves, LJ, Kessler, RC (1993). Smoking and major depression. A causal analysis. Archives of General Psychiatry 50, 3643.
Livesley, J (2008). Toward a genetically-informed model of borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders 22, 4271.
McCrae, RR, Yang, J, Costa, PT, Dai, XY, Yao, SQ, Cai, TS, Gao, BL (2001). Personality profiles and the prediction of categorical personality disorders. Journal of Personality 69, 155174.
Middeldorp, CM, Cath, DC, Beem, AL, Willemsen, G, Boomsma, DI (2008). Life events, anxious depression and personality: a prospective and genetic study. Psychological Medicine 38, 15571565.
Morey, LC (1991). The Personality Assessment Inventory: Professional Manual. Psychological Assessment Resources: Odessa, FL.
Muthén, LK, Muthén, BO (2005). Mplus User's Guide. Muthén & Muthén: Los Angeles, CA.
Neale, MC, Boker, SM, Xie, G, Maes, HH (2006). Mx: Statistical Modeling. VCU, Department of Psychiatry: Richmond, VA.
Paris, J (1997). Childhood trauma as an etiological factor in the personality disorders. Journal of Personality Disorders 11, 3449.
Plomin, R, Defries, JC, Loehlin, JC (1977). Genotype-environment interaction and correlation in analysis of human behavior. Psychological Bulletin 84, 309322.
Posthuma, D, Beem, AL, de Geus, EJC, van Baal, GCM, von Hjelmborg, JB, Lachine, I, Boomsma, DI (2003). Theory and practice in quantitative genetics. Twin Research 6, 361376.
Purcell, S (2002). Variance components models for gene-environment interaction in twin analysis. Twin Research 5, 554571.
Risch, N, Herrell, R, Lehner, T, Liang, KY, Eaves, L, Hoh, J, Griem, A, Kovacs, M, Ott, J, Merikangas, KR (2009). Interaction between the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR), stressful life events, and risk of depression a meta-analysis. Journal of the American Medical Association 301, 24622471.
Rutter, M (2007). Gene-environment interdependence. Developmental Science 10, 1218.
Silk, KR, Lee, S, Hill, EM, Lohr, NE (1995). Borderline personality disorder symptoms and severity of sexual abuse. American Journal of Psychiatry 152, 10591064.
Terracciano, A, Tanaka, T, Sutin, AR, Deiana, B, Balaci, L, Sanna, S, Olla, N, Maschio, A, Uda, M, Ferrucci, L, Schlessinger, D, Costa, PT (2010). BDNF Val66Met is associated with introversion and interacts with 5-HTTLPR to influence neuroticism. Neuropsychopharmacology 35, 10831089.
Torgersen, S, Czajkowski, N, Jacobson, K, Reichborn-Kjennerud, T, Roysamb, E, Neale, MC, Kendler, KS (2008). Dimensional representations of DSM-IV cluster B personality disorders in a population-based sample of Norwegian twins: a multivariate study. Psychological Medicine 38, 16171625.
Van der Velden, PG, Van der Burg, S, Steinmetz, CHD, Van den Bout, J (1992). Victims of Bank Robberies [in Dutch]. Bohn Stafleu Van Loghum: Houten, The Netherlands.
Wagner, S, Baskaya, O, Dahmen, N, Lieb, K, Tadic, A (2010). Modulatory role of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val(66)Met polymorphism on the effects of serious life events on impulsive aggression in borderline personality disorder. Genes, Brain, and Behavior 9, 97–102.
Wagner, S, Baskaya, O, Lieb, K, Dahmen, N, Tadic, A (2009). The 5-HTTLPR polymorphism modulates the association of serious life events (SLE) and impulsivity in patients with borderline personality disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research 43, 10671072.
Zanarini, MC, Williams, AA, Lewis, RE, Reich, RB, Vera, SC, Marino, MF, Levin, A, Yong, L, Frankenburg, FR (1997). Reported pathological childhood experiences associated with the development of borderline personality disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry 154, 11011106.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed