Study uncovers possible link between immune system and postpartum depression

November 7, 2018, The Ohio State University
Credit: George Hodan/Public Domain

The immune system might play an important role in the development of postpartum depression after a stressful pregnancy, new research suggests.

Areas of the responsible for mood regulation showed signs of inflammation in the study, which used an animal model of postpartum to examine the possible connection between the immune system, the brain and the disorder. The study by researchers at The Ohio State University was presented Nov. 6 in San Diego at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting.

"Postpartum depression is understudied and, as a result, remains poorly understood," said lead author Benedetta Leuner, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State.

"Gaining a better understanding of the factors that contribute to this serious and prevalent disorder will be key to finding ways to better help women who are struggling."

Postpartum depression is common after childbirth—about 15 percent of all new mothers will experience the disorder, which has a variety of symptoms including prolonged depression, difficulty bonding with the baby, overwhelming fatigue and hopelessness.

"At least a half million women in the U.S. each year suffer from postpartum depression, and that is probably a low estimate. It's surprising how little we know about how it arises," Leuner said.

Previous research has focused primarily on potential hormonal explanations for postpartum depression, though some earlier work has been done on the immune system. In those studies, scientists have looked at signs of inflammation in the blood and found mixed results.

This study looked at the medial prefrontal cortex, a mood-related brain region previously implicated in postpartum depression.

For the experiment, rats were stressed during pregnancy to mimic a well-known risk factor for postpartum depression in human mothers. Similar to behaviors seen in women with postpartum depression, the stressed animals exhibited decreased attentiveness to their pups and depression- and anxiety-like behavior during various tasks.

And, unlike unstressed comparison animals, the stressed rats had higher levels of inflammatory markers in their brain tissue, Leuner said. Furthermore, the researchers found evidence that the stress might lead to changes in how certain immune cells in the brain—called microglia—function.

Study co-author Kathryn Lenz, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, said she has become increasingly interested in the role of the immune system and its subsequent effects on the brain in mood disorders, including depression.

"It was especially interesting that we found no evidence of increased inflammation in the blood, but we did find it in this area of the brain that is important for mood regulation. We're really excited because this suggests that inflammation in the brain may be a potential contributor to ," Lenz said.

"Eventually, this might provide a better target for treatment, whether through medication or other techniques such as meditation, diet and stress reduction," she said.

"Postpartum depression is debilitating and can negatively impact the whole family. We are hopeful that this and future research will improve the lives of women and those around them," Leuner said

Explore further: Postpartum depression linked to mother's pain after childbirth

Related Stories

Postpartum depression linked to mother's pain after childbirth

October 14, 2018
While childbirth pain has been linked to postpartum depression, the culprit may be the pain experienced by the mother following childbirth, rather than during the labor and delivery process, suggests new research presented ...

Know the signs of postpartum depression

June 14, 2018
(HealthDay)—Having a baby is a unique joy, yet it can also bring profound sadness to some women.

Gestational diabetes may predispose to postpartum depression symptoms

September 4, 2018
Mothers diagnosed with gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) have an elevated risk of developing postpartum depression symptoms, according to a new Finnish study.

Chronic stress during pregnancy prevents brain benefits of motherhood, study shows

October 14, 2012
A new study in animals shows that chronic stress during pregnancy prevents brain benefits of motherhood, a finding that researchers suggest could increase understanding of postpartum depression.

Hair cortisol levels predict which mothers are more likely to suffer postpartum depression

November 14, 2017
Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR), who belong to the Brain, Mind and Behavior Research Center (CIMCYC, from its abbreviation in Spanish) and the Faculty of Psychology, have proven that cortisol levels present ...

Anger overlooked as feature of postnatal mood disorders: study

June 26, 2018
Women in the postpartum period should be screened for anger in addition to depression and anxiety, new research from the University of British Columbia suggests.

Recommended for you

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

Brain changes found in self-injuring teen girls

November 13, 2018
The brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm, including cutting, show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness, a new ...

Major traumatic injury increases risk of mental health diagnoses, suicide

November 12, 2018
People who experience major injuries requiring hospital admission, such as car crashes and falls, are at substantially increased risk of being admitted to hospital for mental health disorders, found a study in CMAJ (Canadian ...

Nearly one in ten Americans struggles to control sexual urges

November 9, 2018
(HealthDay)—The #MeToo movement has given many Americans a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that may have left many wondering, "What were they thinking?"

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.