Blood Test Hopes For Postpartum Depression

Medical Reviewer

Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that affects around 1 in every 7 women following their baby’s birth (1). Postpartum depression is somewhat different to the so-called ‘baby blues’, a catch-all term for emotions that often include anxiety, sadness, stress or fatigue. Postpartum depression (PPD) may appear days, weeks or even months after a baby is born. A variety of clinical depressive symptoms appear, alongside some that are specific to the mother. These include problems forming an emotional attachment to the baby, persistent doubts over coping abilities and worries about the mother harming herself or her baby. The National Institute of Mental Health provides a helpful fact sheet on PPD.

Untreated, PPD can go on for months or even longer. Not only does it affect the health of the mother, increasing the risk of further major depressive episodes, but the social and emotional ramifications may be felt by the father and any other children. The consequences for children of PPD mothers are especially concerning resulting as they frequently do in a range of emotional and behavioral issues (2) .

Any news that suggests a preventative measure for PPD may be in development is welcome. Results from a small study of 66 women published in the March 8 edition of Archives of Women’s Mental Health look interesting. The study, led by assistant professor Dr. Suena Massey at Northwestern University School of Medicine has found a link between higher oxytocin levels and PPD.

Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the ‘trust hormone’. It is a feel-good hormone, thought to be involved in the formation of trust and generosity. It has a number of other actions but, as Massey states, has important functions for mothers in terms of delivery and lactation, mother-child bonding and stress management.

All the volunteers were free from depression at the start of the study so Dr. Massey was surprised to find higher levels of oxytocin in 13 women who went on to show signs of depression. Further investigation revealed that these same women had a history of depression. Massey speculates that higher levels of oxytocin may indicate an attempt by the body to counter the effects of depression.

Very small studies always need to be treated with a healthy degree of caution, a point noted by Dr. Massey. They may however act as a springboard for more detailed investigations. If, as the early signs seem to indicate, a simple blood test could help predict the risk of PPD it would represent a major step forward. Preventative treatments could then be tailored for those most at risk of PPD.