Affective instability as rapid cycling: theoretical and clinical implications for borderline personality and bipolar spectrum disorders


  • The authors of this paper do not have any commercial associations that might pose a conflict of interest in connection with this manuscript.

Dean F MacKinnon, MD, Meyer 3-181, 600 N Wolfe St, Baltimore, MD 21287, USA. Fax: 443 287 6330;


Objectives:  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders guidelines provide only a partial solution to the nosology and treatment of bipolar disorder in that disorders with common symptoms and biological correlates may be categorized separately because of superficial differences related to behavior, life history, and temperament. The relationship is explored between extremely rapid switching forms of bipolar disorder, in which manic and depressive symptoms are either mixed or switch rapidly, and forms of borderline personality disorder in which affective lability is a prominent symptom.

Methods:  A MedLine search was conducted of articles that focused on rapid cycling in bipolar disorder, emphasizing recent publications (2001–2004).

Results:  Studies examined here suggest a number of points of phenomenological and biological overlap between the affective lability criterion of borderline personality disorder and the extremely rapid cycling bipolar disorders. We propose a model for the development of ‘borderline’ behaviors on the basis of unstable mood states that sheds light on how the psychological and somatic interventions may be aimed at ‘breaking the cycle’ of borderline personality disorder development. A review of pharmacologic studies suggests that anticonvulsants may have similar stabilizing effects in both borderline personality disorder and rapid cycling bipolar disorder.

Conclusions:  The same mechanism may drive both the rapid mood switching in some forms of bipolar disorder and the affective instability of borderline personality disorder and may even be rooted in the same genetic etiology. While continued clinical investigation of the use of anticonvulsants in borderline personality disorder is needed, anticonvulsants may be useful in the treatment of this condition, combined with appropriate psychotherapy.