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Cell Communication at Play in Postpartum Depression

Cell Communication at Play in Postpartum Depression

One in nine new mothers has postpartum depression, a condition marked by periods of sadness, loneliness and inability to care for their newborns that last longer than two weeks.

Now a new federally funded study led by Johns Hopkins Children’s Center researchers has discovered that communication among cells is altered in pregnant women who go on to develop postpartum depression (PPD) after giving birth.

“With postpartum depression, there are many potential negative outcomes, such as a high rate of suicide among mothers or a disruption in the baby’s cognitive, emotional and social development. If we could identify mothers who may be more at risk ahead of the birth, we might prevent these adverse events,” says neuroscientist Sarven Sabunciyan, an assistant professor of pediatrics and senior author of the study, which appeared in Molecular Psychiatry.

Changes in extracellular RNA communication, a recently discovered cell signaling method, have already been linked to premature births, gestational diabetes, toxic maternal high blood pressure and other pregnancy-related events. Leaders of the new study examined maternal blood and sought to determine if there were distinct changes in this extracellular communications system during postpartum depression. The extracellular RNA communication changes identified in the study suggest that women who develop PPD are unable to efficiently remove aging and defective cell components. This process, called autophagy, is also known to malfunction in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“Potentially, postpartum depression could be treated using certain Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease medications that induce autophagy,” says Sabunciyan.

The researchers caution that their study was limited by small numbers and a lack of racial diversity. But they say if further studies confirm the findings, they could potentially develop a blood test that can identify women who are pregnant who are at risk for developing postpartum depression after delivery. The research may also advance development of therapies for PPD.

“If we can identify those at risk early, and get them into proper treatment, we’re likely to be able to prevent a lot of serious effects of postpartum depression,” Sabunciyan says.

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