Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=221976
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Courtesy of Elizabeth Stallard Rank

Elizabeth Stallard Rank developed postpartum depression after she gave birth to both of her sons, Hayden, 7 (left) and Noah, 5.


Genes could predict risk for postpartum depression, study says

by Elena Schneider
May 23, 2013


For the first few months after her pregnancy, Elizabeth Stallard Rank could not put a name on how she felt.


“I thought I was going crazy,” she said. “I was so afraid that something would happen [to my baby]. I didn’t want anyone to touch him and I didn’t want to leave the house.”

Rank, who is now 39, was diagnosed with postpartum depression after her son Hayden celebrated his first birthday.

“I had the classic lead up to postpartum depression by being afraid of childbirth and pregnancy,” Rank said. She had suffered from three miscarriages before she got pregnant and she also underwent a difficult birthing experience with an emergency caesarean section to deliver Hayden in December 2005.

But a new study brings Rank hope. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore said they found preliminary evidence that increased sensitivity to estrogen puts a woman at significantly greater risk of developing postpartum depression.

 

These predictive biomarkers could be added to the battery of blood tests a pregnant woman undergoes, said lead researcher Professor Zachary Kaminsky. The study was published online in the journal of Molecular Psychiatry this week.

“We were able to use estrogen sensitivity to come up with two genes to watch, and they appeared to predict where postpartum would appear,” Kaminsky said. “It was surprising that it worked so well.”

The study, which tracked 52 pregnant women, found that 85 percent of them with those two genes developed the condition. Kaminsky said the genes may be connected to the creation of cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that controls moods.  

An estimated 10 to 18 percent of new mothers develop postpartum depression, with varying symptoms, the study reported. The rate climbs to 30 to 35 percent for women previously diagnosed with mood disorders.

“I know the label ‘depression’ scares people, but if we can say, this is a physical thing that’s happening to you, it could change things,” said Rank, a stay-at-home mom living in Crystal Lake. “Having a blood test takes away the stigma, maybe they would feel less ashamed for reaching out for help.”

But psychologist Dr. Sarah Allen expressed concern that a blood test for postpartum depression risk might encourage more women to go on anti-depressants.

“There are lots of situational reasons [for depression], like the trauma of childbirth or financial stress, and anti-depressants don’t always work,” said Allen, who counsels about a dozen women with the condition weekly. “We develop coping strategies, so it is not just a pill you take and then you’ll be alright.”

Kaminsky echoed Allen’s concern, but emphasized that the test would only warn women that they are at risk. Risk is not a guarantee that a woman would develop symptoms.

“Then a woman could go make an appointment with a psychiatrist and get some specific help or direction,” he said. “In some cases, [anti-depressants] could be the wise course.”

Kaminsky said he is currently applying for new research grants to expand his study. He added the study holds “great promise” for more genetic studies on mental health disorders.

After her first son was born, Rank sought out psychological therapy and said putting a name to her condition brought her relief. In October 2007, Rank gave birth to her second son, Noah, and she experienced postpartum depression again. But this time, she was prepared.

“I started falling off again, but I recognized it this time and I knew what was happening to me,” she said. “I knew the feelings and I recognized that it was postpartum depression talking, not the way I really felt or thought.”

Rank, who overcame the postpartum symptoms, is studying to become a therapist because of her experiences.