Being exposed to violence and maltreatment as a child is a well-documented risk factor for abnormal development. Children of mothers with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are at a particularly high risk of experiencing violence and maltreatment. There is compelling evidence that exposure to environmental adversity during childhood is associated with negative outcomes in adulthood. While the adverse impact of maternal BPD and the associated violent parenting practices on their children are known, the disorder-specific impact of maternal BPD on their children and the potential beneficial effects of a disorder-specific parent training on the children have not yet been investigated in detail.

Associated Projects

An understanding of mechanisms mediating these effects is critical: we need to know in what way adversity shapes development, and how these processes can be prevented. Experimental studies in model organisms provide powerful evidence that environmental influences acting early in life can have enduring effects on physiology, and that these effects are, in part, mediated by epigenetic modifications. Moreover, (human) research in the emerging field of therapy epigenetics provide further evidence that positive environmental influences such as psychotherapy or other types of intervention might change DNA methylation patterns. Following this line of research, the aim of the present project is to assess longitudinally the effects of parent training on dynamic alterations of DNA methylation patterns in mother-child dyads. Further aims are to examine whether effects of the intervention on socio-emotional functioning in children are mediated via changes in DNA methylation patterns and whether differences in DNA methylation before treatment predict intervention outcome. Based on animal and human work showing that oxytocin plays a critical role in the regulation of social behavior, we will focus on the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) as our prime candidate for the investigation of epigenetic effects in BPD. By exploring changes in DNA methylation, this project will contribute important insights and a new way to identify biological mechanisms involved in psychological treatment response.

This study is part of the consortium ProChild (“Preventing maltreatment and promoting mental health in children of mothers with borderline personality disorder”), funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung). 


Contact M.Sc. Svenja Müller


Associated Publication

Moser, D. A., Mueller, S., Hummel, E. M., Limberg, A. S., Dieckmann, L., Frach, L., ... & Kumsta, R. (2020). Targeted bisulfite sequencing: A novel tool for the assessment of DNA methylation with high sensitivity and increased coverage. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 120, 104784.