New research into the brain chemistry of women after giving birth has given us new insight into the cause and potential treatment of postpartum depression (PPD). Despite the joy of having a baby, the majority of women develop a low mood soon after giving birth, and for 13% of women, the baby blues develops into full fledged postpartum depression.
We know that a woman’s estrogen level plummets 100 to 1,000 fold within a fews days after giving birth. We also know that decreases in estrogen cause increases in the levels of an important enzyme in the brain, monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A). What we didn’t know is exactly how the rapid fall of estrogen levels after birth impacts levels of MAO-A in the brains of postpartum women.
A new neuroimaging study which looked at the distribution of MAO-A throughout the brains of woman 4-6 days postpartum, found that on average, women who were postpartum had 43% higher MAO-A levels than women who had not recently been postpartum.
MAO-A is an enzyme responsible for breaking down the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters influence our mood, and when they are too low we feel sad and can become depressed.
The high levels of MAO-A found in this study can explain the sad mood many mothers feel shortly after giving birth. It shows that there is a physiological reason why women are at such a high risk for developing depression after having a baby, and gives doctors and researchers a lead on possible ways to use medications to prevent PPD.
- Sacher, J et al. Elevated Brain Monoamine Oxidase A Binding in the Early Postpartum Period Archives of General Psychiatry 67(5):468-474 (2010)
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