Is Borderline Personality Disorder Genetic?

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition characterized by instability in moods, self-image, and behavior. People with BPD may have unstable relationships; intense episodes of anger, anxiety, or depression; and impulsive, even self-harming, actions.

The symptoms of borderline personality disorder typically begin in a person's adolescent years, and the condition is more common in females.

The exact causes of BPD are not known, but existing research indicates that genetics are a contributing factor.

BPD affects 1.4% of the U.S. population. You are more likely to develop BPD if a member of your family has the condition, and your risk increases depending on how closely related you are to the person with BPD. The heritability of BPD (the chance that you will inherit the trait) is estimated to be 46%.

Glowing and shining DNA strands double helix close-up


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Borderline Personality Disorder and Genetics

Current research supports the theory that there is a large genetic component to whether a person develops BPD. Two genes—DPYD and PKP4have been identified as increasing a person's risk of developing BPD. However, these genes are linked to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder risk, too.

Your risk of developing BPD is based on how closely you are genetically related to someone in your family who has BPD.

Researchers use "hazard ratios" to describe this risk, which essentially indicate the increased likelihood for you to develop BPD versus someone in the general population who has no genetic relation to someone with BPD.

The hazard ratios for BPD are:

  • Identical (monozygotic) twins: 11.5
  • Fraternal (dizygotic) twins: 7.4
  • Full siblings: 4.7
  • Maternal half siblings: 2.1
  • Paternal half siblings: 1.3
  • Cousins whose parents were full siblings: 1.7
  • Cousins whose parents were maternal half siblings: 1.9

For example, if your full sibling has BPD, you are 4.7 times more likely to develop it than someone who is unrelated to anyone with BPD. That said, the prevalence of BPD across populations is 1.4%—meaning that you are still more likely to not develop BPD, even though you are at greater risk.

However, first-degree relatives also share environments, which means that these findings do not point solely to genetics. Environmental causes, particularly childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect, also contribute to developing BPD. That's why looking at twin studies is helpful to understand the true genetic contribution to BPD.

Twin Studies

Twin studies use identical twins (who share 100% of their DNA) and fraternal twins (who share 50% of their DNA) as participants. These types of studies are essential to understanding genetics because they help researchers disentangle genetic causes from environmental causes in order to make more accurate conclusions about heritability.

For example, if identical twins raised in different environments have similar hazard ratios for developing BPD, it suggests that genetics has a stronger role than environment in the development of the disease.

In 2019, a large-scale Swedish twin study (and the highest-quality twin study on BPD performed to date) found that identical twins were significantly more likely to develop BPD than fraternal twins (hazard ratios of 11.5 to 7.4, respectively).

The study concluded that clusters of BPD in families have genetic causes and are not caused by shared environmental factors (such as socioeconomic status). That means that if those identical twins had been separated and grew up in different environments, their likelihood of developing BPD would remain the same based on their genes.

However, the researchers did conclude that there is a 54% contribution of unique, non-shared environmental factors—such as trauma or abuse—which could explain variance. In other words, genetics plays a large role in whether you may develop BPD, but it is not the only factor.

Other Risk Factors

Studies have also found an association between environmental factors and BPD. However, the research is largely associative, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the cause-and-effect relationship between these factors and BPD.

The possible environmental risk factors for BPD include:

  • Traumatic life events
  • Childhood physical abuse
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Childhood neglect

It is also thought that structural and functional changes in the brain are linked to BPD. This includes changes in the areas of the brain regulating emotions and control impulses. However, it is unclear whether these changes cause BPD or if they are a result of BPD.

Why Treatment Matters

Early intervention for BPD, as well as any co-occurring conditions, is very important. It used to be believed that BPD was untreatable. However, a variety of new models of psychotherapy have been developed over the past several decades to help people with BPD.

These therapies include dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mentalization-based therapy (MBT), transference-focused therapy (TFB), and schema-focused therapy (SFT). New evidence has found that BPD responds very well to treatment with these emerging psychotherapies.

Seeking treatment can help you learn coping mechanisms to manage your symptoms, repair and maintain relationships, reduce self-harming behaviors, and become more engaged in areas of life that you previously missed out on, such as work, socialization, and family life.

Having Kids When You Have BPD

If you have BPD, you may have mixed feelings about having children. If you are concerned about the possibility that your children will also have BPD, know that just because you have the condition does not mean that your children also will. However, due to genetic factors, your children will be at an increased risk of developing BPD compared to the general population.

While you cannot change your genetics, there are some preventive measures you can take to lower the odds of your child developing BPD.

Unique environmental factors such as abuse, trauma, and neglect are associated with BPD. You can lower the chances of your child developing BPD by doing your best to raise your child in a safe and supportive environment where they are surrounded by responsible adults and caregivers.

Seeking treatment for your own BPD will also support your child's development. Your BPD may not go away, but you can prepare yourself for the task of raising children by developing helpful coping mechanisms, undergoing psychotherapy, and taking medications as prescribed.

As a parent with BPD, you might be more likely to recognize the signs and symptoms of the condition in your child. This can be an asset, as they will likely be diagnosed sooner and get treatment sooner.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you treat borderline personality disorder?

BPD is primarily treated through psychotherapy, but it should only be delivered by a specially trained provider. Types of psychotherapy include dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mentalization-based therapy (MBT), transference-focused therapy (TFB), and schema-focused therapy (SFT).

Medications can also be prescribed to treat comorbid conditions (conditions that occur at the same time but are usually independent from another condition), such as depression and anxiety. However, there is no medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to specifically treat BPD.

What are the symptoms of borderline personality disorder?

The signs and symptoms of BPD are set out by the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" (DSM-5)—the handbook used to diagnose mental health conditions.

A person must have five or more of the following symptoms to be diagnosed with BPD:

  • Efforts to avoid abandonment
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Intense episodes of anger
  • Emotional instability
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Identity and self-image disturbances
  • Unstable relationships
  • Self-harming behaviors, including suicidal behaviors
  • Paranoid or dissociative symptoms that pass quickly

What is it like to have borderline personality disorder?

A person with untreated or poorly treated BPD may feel overly emotional, with frequent outbursts of anger, self-hate, or self-harm.

They often have unstable relationships, pushing away their loved ones while simultaneously experiencing a deep fear of abandonment. They may also make impulsive and dangerous decisions, increasing their likelihood of substance use.

However, a person with well-treated BPD may find that many of these symptoms decrease, or at least become more easily managed, by learning how to track symptoms, avoid triggers, and seek support when needed. They will learn coping mechanisms to prevent self-harm, maintain relationships, and manage their roller coaster of emotions.

Some people even find that with continuous treatment they no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for BPD.

A Word From Verywell

Borderline personality disorder is a complex and serious mental health condition. While it does have significant genetic factors, the risk of developing BPD is also influenced by unique environmental factors.

There is a lot that is still unknown about the genetics of BPD, including how certain genes influence specific traits or symptoms of BPD.

You might be concerned about having children if you have BPD. While your child might be at increased risk for BPD, it does not mean they definitely will develop it. And, because you have BPD, you might be more alert to the early signs in your child, can take steps mitigate their risk, and help them get treatment sooner if they do develop BPD.

Talking with your therapist or seeking the input of a genetic counselor can help you process your concerns and reach a decision that you feel comfortable with.

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