New Test Can Predict Postpartum Depression Risk

Your odds of developing postpartum depression might be measurable while you're still pregnant. New researchers examine the strange connection with oxytocin.

New Test Can Predict Postpartum Depression Risk Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

Women with higher levels of oxytocin in their third trimesters of pregnancy might experience more severe symptoms of postpartum depression, according to a recent study from Northwestern University.

The study's researchers examined 66 women to identify whether biomarkers could predict depressive symptoms. Their findings indicated that higher levels of oxytocin are linked to postpartum depressive symptoms. This is huge news, not just because we may finally be able to understand what causes postpartum depression on a biological level, but also because it could affect the way medical professionals treat postpartum depression—it could even stop the depression in its tracks.

On track for a test

The researchers studied healthy women who were not depressed, measuring oxytocin levels during the third trimester and then evaluating their depression symptoms at six weeks postpartum. Researchers found that the higher the oxytocin levels, the more depressive the symptoms were during the postpartum evaluation. Symptoms of postpartum depression include waking up early and feeling unable to go back to sleep, increased anxiety, more aches and pains, headaches, fatigue or a sense of heaviness, changes in appetite and generally feeling sad.

"It's not ready to become a new blood test yet," lead investigator Suena Massey, M.D. said. "But it tells us that we are on the track to identifying biomarkers to help predict postpartum depression."

The oxytocin paradox

If you think the link seems counterintuitive, you're right. Dr. Massey actually predicted that lower levels of oxytocin would contribute to postpartum risk—after all, it's colloquially known as the "cuddle hormone." In fact, another study suggested that oxytocin could serve as a remedy for postpartum depression.

"There's emerging research that a past history of depression can change the oxytocin receptor in such a way that it becomes less efficient," Dr. Massey said. "Perhaps, when women are starting to experience early signs of depression, their bodies release more oxytocin to combat it."

Doctors screen pregnant women for non-psychiatric conditions like gestational diabetes. According to Dr. Massey, psychiatric conditions like postpartum depression should be treated the same way.

"In light of the far reaching consequences of untreated postpartum depression to women and their children, the ability to predict which individuals are at greatest risk for developing it yields the exciting possibility for prevention," Dr. Massey said.