Test Determines Postpartum Depression Risk

A new study finds a way to identify pregnant women who are more likely to develop postpartum depression, or PPD, by way of a blood test, thus speeding up treatment.

Test Determines Postpartum Depression Risk SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Until recently, postpartum depression (PPD) was rarely talked about, and the up to 19 percent of new moms who suffered from it did so in silence. But awareness of the disorder has been growing lately, with more research shedding light on its causes. A new study in the journal Frontiers in Genetics found a way for a simple blood test to signal whether a pregnant woman is more likely to develop PPD after giving birth, allowing the mom-to-be and her doctors to prepare for treatment later.

A new test could hold answers

Scientists already knew that the level of oxytocin, the "love hormone" responsible for maternal bonding and overall good feelings, is lower in women who have postpartum depression. This new study found that it's not just the hormone itself, but the way your cells receive it that is different with the disorder. The researchers discovered a way to measure this, which could lead to a risk-assessment in mom before baby is even born. "We found that women who did not have depression prenatally but developed postpartum depression were nearly three times more at risk for developing the disease if they carried a specific combination of DNA changes in the oxytocin receptor," Jessica Connelly, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and senior author of the study, tells Fit Pregnancy.

If the study's results are replicated in further research, it could mean that pregnant women will be able to get screened for the marker during their pregnancy. Through a simple blood test, Connelly says, "we wouldn't be able to say definitively that a woman would have postpartum depression, but could tell a woman if she were at increased risk. This would be especially helpful to women who never experienced depression." Although one risk factor for developing PPD is a history of depression, this marker shows up even when that's not the case. "When women with a previous history of depression were excluded from the analysis, the relationship remained," Connelly says of the study's findings. With testing, women who might otherwise be shocked to develop PPD, or not even realize they have it, could instead be aware of its likelihood.

Knowing ahead of time can help

For women at risk of PPD, becoming aware of warning signs to watch for after they give birth could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment. "Identifying that someone has increased risk doesn't reverse the effects, but information helps. And so does follow up by medical practitioners," Connelly says. With this test, doctors could flag women whose results show an increased risk of PPD, in order to keep a closer eye on them after birth and make sure they're doing alright.

This new test may also be helpful for new moms because it's often hard to tell the difference between the "baby blues," which happens to many postpartum women thanks to the drop in hormones after birth, and true PPD, which lasts longer (more than two weeks) and is usually more severe. But regardless of any test results, if you feel sad, hopeless or overwhelmed, have trouble sleeping or eating, a lack of interest in the baby, or thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, contact your doctor immediately. "In general, I'd like to see greater support and acceptance of this disorder in our society," Connelly says. "This is a biological phenomenon that should be talked about and supported."