LONDON: Women who have inherited specific genetic variants may be at increased risk for postnatal depression, according to research presented at a conference in Italy this week. If confirmed, the investigators hope that their finding will result in a blood test being developed that will allow doctors to check a woman’s risk for the condition before giving birth.
“There are studies suggesting that women with postnatal depression appear to have abnormal hormonal responses to stress, especially responses of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, possibly due to differences in sensitivity to the steroid hormones of pregnancy,” said lead investigator Dimitris Grammatopoulos from the University of Warwick, in the UK, who presented the research this week at the International and European Congress of Endocrinology in Florence, Italy.
Nature versus nurture
“Our study provided the first evidence that specific variants of genes controlling the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis are associated with increased risk of postnatal depression,” he said. Postnatal depression is common in Western countries affecting around 1 in 7 women.
“If left untreated, postnatal depression has profound consequences on the quality of family life and social functioning as well as on the long-term emotional and cognitive development of the baby,” said Grammatopoulos.
Similarities between depression and postnatal depression
Mutations located in genes that regulate the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis have previously been linked to depression, but not specifically to postnatal depression.
The most significant risk factors for the condition that have been identified to date include having a past history of depression, psychological disturbance during pregnancy, a poor marital relationship, a lack of social support, and exposure to stressful life events.
As there are certain similarities between depression and postnatal depression, Grammatopoulos and colleagues decided to test a group of 140 pregnant women for five genetic variants known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) previously linked with increased susceptibility to depression.
The women were tested for postnatal depression before and 2–8 weeks after giving birth using a psychological test called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Score, and 34 of the women developed the disorder.