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Blood test could spot women at risk of postnatal depression

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

3rd July 2013 - British doctors say they have uncovered the first evidence that some women may be genetically predisposed to postnatal depression (PND).

Specialists at University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust (UHCW) and Warwick Medical School have proved that a genetic variation can lead to women becoming up to five times more likely to develop PND.

Up to 15% of women are reported to suffer from PND, but experts believe this figure could be much higher as many severe cases of the ‘ baby blues’ go unreported.

Hormonal imbalances

Previous studies have identified multiple molecular signatures linked to depression. Professor Dimitris Grammatopoulos, who led the research, tested some of these variations and has now isolated two of them specifically linked to PND, which are triggered by hormonal imbalances during pregnancy.

The findings, which are published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, are based on a study of 200 pregnant women. The doctors found that an overwhelming majority of women who went on to develop PND had at least one of two molecular signatures - variations in a person’s DNA - which increase the risk of PND.

The authors explain that a rise in the level of oestrogen during pregnancy can lead to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, or to increased sensitivity to hormones, which has been linked to depression. Most women are able to 'reset' their hormonal imbalance after giving birth, but some women are unable to do so.

The research team found that women with one genetic variation were 2.8 times more likely to have PND while women with the other variation were five times more likely to develop the condition.

'Strong genetic component'

Professor Grammatopoulos says in a statement: "PND is a complex condition influenced by everything from a woman’s financial situation to the level of support she is given.

"However, our research shows there is more to the ‘baby blues’ than environmental factors alone and has a strong genetic component. This discovery has the potential to revolutionise our care for expectant mothers by screening them before the devastating symptoms of PND set in."

Professor Grammatopoulos told Sky News that blood samples already taken routinely in the early stages of pregnancy could be screened to test women for the genetic variations. He says screening currently costs between £30 and £40, but that automation could bring the cost down to just £10.

Professor Grammatopoulos and his team at UHCW are now conducting the next phase of their research among a larger group of women to refine the testing process.

'Set a clear objective'

Dan Poulter, the minister for health and maternity, says in a statement: "I very much welcome this new research, and we shall look into how it can improve care for women with postnatal depression.

"Women with depression both during and after pregnancy need support, not stigma, and we have set a clear objective for the NHS to reduce postnatal depression through earlier diagnosis and support for women and their partners.

"Care for women with postnatal depression is of course delivered by midwives, health visitors and family nurses who provide the vital, one-to-one care and support, and that is why we have invested in over 1,300 more midwives in our NHS since May 2010, with a record 5,000 in training who will qualify in the next three years. We are also increasing the number of health visitors and family nurses who support women after they have their baby."

Reviewed on July 03, 2013

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