Discovery of Biological Cause for Postpartum Depression? - European Medical Journal

Discovery of Biological Cause for Postpartum Depression?

2 Mins
Reproductive Health

RESEARCHERS have discovered a potential biological cause could explain the onset of postpartum depression, which could lead to new, much-needed treatments. Newly discovered changes in females who are diagnosed with postpartum depression could also allow doctors to pinpoint those at risk before they give birth.

Up to 20% of new mothers are diagnosed with postpartum depression, a serious condition that can lead to momentous consequences, and approximately 20% of maternal deaths following childbirth are due to suicide. New mothers can feel irritable, anxious, and self-doubting, and face difficulties when bonding with their baby. Interference with the ability to eat, sleep, and think is also common. In regard to offspring, cognitive, emotional, and social development issues can be side effects of postpartum depression.

Previously, risk factors in females with postpartum depression were thought to be related to the mother’s age at childbirth, presence of diabetes, and history of mental health issues. However, this new discovery, from researchers at University of Virginia Health, Charlottesville, USA, and colleagues at John Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, and Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, USA, points to an unknown biological contributor, an impairment which prevents the body removing old genetic material.

Researchers aimed to discover whether extracellular RNA communication could be a contributing factor to postpartum depression, as this form of cellular communication increases during pregnancy and plays critical roles, such as fertilisation of the embryo and inflammatory response following childbirth.

Blood plasma samples were collected from 14 females during and following pregnancy, including those who suffered postpartum depression and those who did not. Researchers detected that extracellular RNA communication in immune cells was markedly different in those who had postpartum depression, and that this change significantly limited the body’s ability to clean up cells.

Jennifer L. Payne, director of the Reproductive Psychiatry Research Program, University of Virginia School of Medicine, commented: “The finding that cells aren’t cleaning out old proteins and cellular debris, called autophagy, occurs before women develop depression symptoms, indicating that it could be part of the disease process.” They went on: “There are several medications that promote autophagy in cells, so this finding might open the door to new treatments and to identification of women at risk of postpartum depression before they become ill.”

This discovery may allow clinicians to develop treatments for postpartum depression, including a blood test which could identify those at risk prior to childbirth.

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