Share this

Personality disorder in teen girls sometimes masked by general angst and moodiness<br>

December 1, 2002

Gwenne Culpepper, UNI Office of Public Relations, (319) 273-2761

(Part of the EducatioNet series from the University of Northern Iowa)

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- The angst, moodiness and general melancholia that is a teenage girl's life is legendary. Books have been written about it. Television shows have been produced about it. And therapists everywhere have offered hints and ideas about how to deal with it.

Catherine DeSoto, an assistant professor of biological psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, has some new information. After two years of research involving more than 300 women, DeSoto now believes that fluctuating estrogen levels that occur during adolescence may well be the cause of an increased rate of borderline personality disorder (BDP) in teenage girls. Symptoms of BDP include mood instability, low self-image, easy distraction, problems within relationships and suicidal tendencies. As many as 10 percent of those with BDP will end their lives via suicide.

At first glance, the symptoms are similar to those reported by frustrated parents of moody teen girls. 'But there's a difference. Think of Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction,'' says DeSoto. 'These girls are emotionally volatile. For example, instead of crying about the break-up of a relationship, they'd be likely to go out and slash tires or think about death.'

Through DeSoto's research, women were asked to provide a saliva sample four different times during a single month. The estrogen level in the saliva was measured. 'What we found was that women who had a sharper rise in estrogen during week two of their menstrual cycles tended to have more negative symptoms,' said DeSoto. Furthermore, she explained, among young women who had relatively high levels of symptoms, starting oral contraceptives -- which have estrogen in them -- worsened the symptoms.

Although the findings aren't conclusive, DeSoto said some valuable information has been gained. 'It may be that girls who exhibit these symptoms, or are diagnosed with BDP, shouldn't take oral contraceptive but should explore other birth-control options. Hormonally-based methods which do not cause a daily rise and fall of estrogen might be a better choice for these young women.'

She encourages mothers and daughters to talk with their physicians about BDP, especially if symptoms have worsened after beginning to take oral contraceptives, and to bring to the attention of their physician any information on the disorder.

Her research is more proof that estrogen affects brain and cognitive functions, a concept often rejected until the 1960s. It is now generally accepted.

'My mother told me, for example, that years ago pregnant women who had morning sickness were told that the nausea was caused by their own negative views of the pregnancy. Now we have women going through menopause and they're told the same sorts of things, that the symptoms are all in their heads. Women's bodies and brains are affected by estrogen levels, and it's not all in their heads. If doctors really want to help women, this must be recognized.'