Background: Understanding why individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) ruminate on prior provocations, despite its negative outcomes, is crucial to improving interventions. Provocation-focused rumination may be rewarding in the short term by amplifying anger and producing feelings of justification, validation, and increased energy, while reducing self-directed negative affect. If provocation-focused rumination is utilized regularly as a rewarding emotion regulation strategy, it could result in increased activation in reward-related neural regions. The present pilot study examined neural correlates of provocation-focused rumination, relative to other forms of thought, in BPD.

Method: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was utilized to examine this theory in a pilot study of women diagnosed with BPD (n = 13) and healthy controls (n = 16). All participants received highly critical feedback on a previously written essay in the scanner, followed by prompts to engage in provocation-focused, self-focused, and neutral thought.

Results: Whole-brain analyses showed that in response to the provocation, participants with BPD (compared to controls) demonstrated increased activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC). BPD participants also showed greater activation in the dorsomedial PFC during provocation-focused rumination (relative to neutral-focus). Subsequent ROI analyses revealed that provocation-focused rumination (compared to neutral-focus) increased activation in the nucleus accumbens for the BPD group only.

Conclusions: These findings, while preliminary due to the small sample size and limitations of the protocol, provide initial data consistent with the proposed neurobiological mechanism promoting provocation-focused rumination in BPD. Directions for further research are discussed.

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Published in Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, v. 5, 1, p. 1-12.

© The Author(s). 2018

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

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This study was supported by a research support grant from the University of Kentucky. JRP is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (T32MH019927), and ECW is supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (KL2TR001109).

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The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.