Postpartum depression affects nearly one fifth of women, but researchers haven't been able to single out those who may be particularly at risk, other than looking at a mother's age, partner-related stress and physical abuse. New research might just change that by pinpointing blood markers that could give doctors concrete clues as to which women are more likely to develop PPD.
The new study, from researchers out of the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Bristol and Johns Hopkins University, suggests that there's a significant interaction between an oxytocin receptor blood marker and PPD.
Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for regulating emotions, social interactions and stress, but it's also key to ensuring a mother attaches to her baby emotionally and physically. Researchers have had a hunch that reduced levels of oxytocin could be linked to the symptoms of PPD, which can include intense anxiety, severe mood swings and feelings of inadequacy. But this is the first study to suggest a potential biologic cause of PPD via oxytocin receptors in a woman's blood.
For the study, the researchers looked at 545 mothers in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children survey collected between April 1991 and December 1992. Mothers provided blood samples during pregnancy and filled out questionnaires to report their mental states.
What they found was pretty compelling: Women who had these oxytocin receptor blood markers were nearly three times as likely to develop PPD. The researchers hypothesize that these blood markers could reduce production of the oxytocin receptor gene, which in turn makes a mother less sensitive to all of the wonderful benefits of oxytocin, like promoting emotional well-being and a healthy mother-infant interaction.
Since this is the first study to suggest that these blood markers could be behind PPD, there's still more research needed before a clear link is established. But considering the anxiety, reduced sleep and sometimes-traumatic lifestyle changes that can come with new motherhood, the implications of preemptively identifying a specific woman's risk for PPD are huge.
Just think: With a little more research, we might be able to provide support for women biologically at-risk for PPD before they even give birth.