Post-partum depression: Hormone levels may predict risk

May 17, 2011 

Swiss scientists may have found a way to identify pregnant women who are at risk for experiencing post-partum depression after their babies are born, as well as a clue to how to prevent it.

Gunther Meinlschmidt of the University of Basel in Switzerland and colleagues studied 74 healthy pregnant women, testing them for signs of depression and taking blood samples in their third trimesters.

In a paper published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the researchers reported that those who had lower levels of the hormone oxytocin before giving birth were significantly more likely to develop post-partum depression within two weeks after giving birth.

About one-fifth of mothers experience post-partum depression, which can be severely disabling and increases the risk that babies will develop mental health problems themselves. Oxytocin is a hormone that has a variety of functions, including enabling women to breast-feed. But it is perhaps best known for its emotional effects, most notably helping females bond with their babies.

More research is needed to confirm and explore the findings, the researchers say. But the findings suggest that testing pregnant women's oxytocin levels could help spot those at risk for the disorder, making sure they get counseling and care. There is currently no way to boost oxytocin levels, but eventually, scientists may be able to find ways to prevent women from developing the condition, the researchers say.

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