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Postpartum Depression Discovery Could Open Door to Better Treatments

depressed mom holding a baby

Our body has an amazing ability. It can clean up old genetic material and other debris from our cells. But scientists now know this system doesn't work well in mothers who suffer from postpartum depression (PPD). This exciting research discovery could one day lead to better treatments for PPD.

And it could even help identify pregnant people most at risk for getting life-threatening depression in the weeks and months after giving birth.

“We've never fully understood the biological basis for postpartum depression. But this finding gets us closer to a better understanding,” says Jennifer L. Payne, MD. She directs the Reproductive Psychiatry Research Program at UVA Health. She made this discovery along with collaborators at Johns Hopkins Medicine and Weill Cornell Medicine.

Why This Discovery Is So Vital for New Moms

Postpartum depression strikes up to 20% of new moms. And it can have terrible consequences for both the mother and child. With postpartum depression, new moms can:

And for the child, postpartum depression means problems with cognitive, emotional, and social development. Most tragically, PPD can lead to suicide – a leading cause of death for new moms.

Finding Another Risk Factor for Postpartum Depression

Things that put a person at risk for postpartum depression include:

But this new discovery suggests a previously unknown biological function contributes to postpartum depression.

How Researchers Found a Biological Process Behind PPD

The researchers looked at blood samples collected from 14 research participants during and after their pregnancies. They looked at both women who suffered postpartum depression and those who did not.

They then compared the two groups. And they found that the women who suffered postpartum depression had a “large and consistent” change in a type of communication process between immune cells. This change significantly limited their bodies’ ability to perform important cellular cleanup.

“Deficits in this process are thought to cause toxicity that may lead to the changes in the brain and body associated with depression,” Payne explains.

Have Postpartum Depression?

Know it's highly treatable. Talk to your provider.

New Target to Possibly Prevent Postpartum Depression

Now that researchers know about this biological issue, they may be able to target it to develop new treatments for postpartum depression. Several medications already promote this cleaning-up process in cells, Payne notes.

Payne also hopes this discovery could lead to a blood test to find those at risk for postpartum depression, even before their babies are born. This way, doctors could intervene earlier and make life easier and better for new moms.

“I hope very much this finding leads to better treatments for postpartum depression,” Payne says. “Our goal is to one day prevent PPD in women at risk.”

The researchers published their findings in the scientific journal Nature Molecular Psychiatry.

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