Penn Undergrad Examines Borderline Personality Disorder, Impulsive Decision-Making

This summer, Christeen Samuel, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania from New York City, spent 10 weeks in western Germany using technology to observe how the brain changes when a person makes an impulsive, aggressive choice, such as road rage.A biological basis of behavior major in the School of Arts & Sciences, Samuel studied the neural correlates of aggressive and impulsive decision-making among people who have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, or BPD, a condition that creates instability in moods.

Her research, which will continue for another year, focuses on how brain structures change, comparing the brains of people with BPD to the brains of those without the disorder.

“My goal was to conduct my own research on the brain’s mechanisms for impulsivity and aggression,” says Samuel.The research opportunity in Germany came about when Samuel consulted her University Scholars mentor, Ruben Gur, a neuropsychologist in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, who told her about a longstanding partnership between Penn and RWTH Aachen University to conduct collaborative neuroscience research. The exchange allows German dissertation students to spend time at Penn and Penn students to do the same in Germany.

Offered through Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships, the University Scholars Program presents enriched research experiences for undergraduate students who have demonstrated commitment and promise, Gur says.

“Part of the offering is a mentor who is engaged in cutting-edge research and can get the student involved; another part is financial sponsorship of a summer project,” Gur adds. “Science is becoming globalized. Students preparing to participate in the biomedical research of the future can benefit tremendously from exposure to such international research consortia, and Penn offers several avenues for such experience.”
The summer research program offered Samuel the opportunity to strengthen her methodology skills and data-analysis techniques. She learned how to use the EEG and fMRI scanning equipment and participated in the pilot testing, which meant putting on the EEG cap and going into the MRI scanner to make sure that everything was working.

She also measured the study participants’ electrodermal activity, which tracks their emotional arousal while completing a computerized task that involves decision-making. She found that it changes among participants with BPD.Samuel’s part of the research is only one small piece of a much larger puzzle, one that’s being assembled by the International Research Training Group, a collaboration between Penn and scientists from JARA BRAIN, an initiative of the RWTH Aachen University and the Jülich Research Center. The goal is to identify the source of impulsive behavior in order to develop interventions tailored to best suit individual needs.“We are looking to see if abnormalities in certain brain regions are specific to people with psychiatric diseases or can evolve alongside personality traits such as impulsivity,” Samuel says. “We are also trying to understand other factors that may influence the areas linked to decision-making, such as traumatic childhood experiences and levels of depression.”

Samuel took a course in German and used her days off to explore the remains of the Westwall, a border fortification constructed in 1938; hike in Hürtgenwald; and kayak in the University’s water sports facility.While in Europe, she visited Bonn and Berlin plus the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Spain.“My favorite part was being able to discover more about myself and my interests through my interactions with people from different fields of study, schools, age groups, cultures and personalities,” Samuel says. “I found such interactions very eye-opening.”

Gur adds this kind of internship can be life-changing for budding researchers.

“Beyond the always enriching experience of spending time abroad, Christeen was able to hone her interests toward a specific topic, which she can continue to pursue here,” he says.

Samuel is planning to use what she’s learned to assemble her own research project about impulsivity and aggression this fall and is looking forward to continuing her membership with Penn’s Doctors Without Borders club and joining a new group, the Global Medical Brigades.

Christeen Samuel research poster