It’s estimated that about one in five new mothers suffer from the debilitating effects of postpartum depression. Unlike the “baby blues,” postpartum depression is a serious, long-lasting depression. In milder cases, it can definitely look like the “blues” – sadness, mood swings, frequent crying, irritability and loss of appetite. But in its severest of forms, postpartum depression can manifest itself as negative feelings towards baby, recurrent thoughts of death, feelings of worthlessness, an outright disinterest in baby, and worries of hurting baby or self.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to really check for postpartum depression, outside of speaking with the mother. At the six week postpartum check-up – one of the only opportunities to speak with the mother – moms may assume that they are suffering from nothing more than the baby blues or lack of sleep. Or, if the situation is severe enough that they know something is wrong, they may feel ashamed to talk about it, for fear of sounding like they don’t care about their babies. For this reason, many cases of postpartum depression go unnoticed and unreported.
All that may soon be ending, if a recent study continues to show positive results. Leader of the study, Dr. Zachary Kaminsky at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and colleagues believe they have identified two genes in DNA that may signal the onset of postpartum depression before the baby is even born. Screened for with a simple blood test, this would give doctors a chance to discuss symptoms and treatments with mothers before the onset of the condition, and support systems could be in place before the baby was born.
“Post-partum depression can be harmful to both mother and child,” Dr. Kaminsky told Daily Mail. “But we don’t have a reliable way to screen for the condition before it causes harm. A test like this could be that way…With more research this could prove to be a powerful new tool.”
According to Dr. Kaminsky, on the 52 expectant mothers tested, the blood tests were able to predict the onset of the condition with an accuracy of 85 percent. After taking other information into account, like mental health history, the accuracy increased to 96 percent in a small group of women, the researchers reported in the medical journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Researchers believe that women with these two genes are thought to be particularly susceptible to the effects that the fluctuations of pregnancy hormones can have on the brain. For this reason, these women may be more vulnerable to stress, and they may have a harder time adapting to the strenuous demands of motherhood.
Of course, the researchers did note that the mothers given this test in their trial had a history of either bipolar or depression, so they were automatically more susceptible to postpartum depression. However, Dr. Kaminsky believes that the test could also be valuable in the larger population. He believes that, if tested early on in their pregnancy, the majority of women at risk could at least have the tools they need to know when to ask for help. And because they would better understand what’s happening, they may be more likely to ask for help before any real harm is done.
“If you knew you were likely to develop post-partum depression, your decisions about managing your care could be made more clearly,” Kaminsky said.
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