The epigenetic modifications, which alter the way genes function without changing the underlying DNA sequence, can apparently be detected in the blood of pregnant women during any trimester, potentially providing a simple way to foretell depression in the weeks after giving birth, and an opportunity to intervene before symptoms become debilitating.
The findings of the small study involving 52 pregnant women are described online in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
"Postpartum depression can be harmful to both mother and child," says study leader Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "But we don't have a reliable way to screen for the condition before it causes harm, and a test like this could be that way."
It is not clear what causes postpartum depression, a condition marked by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, exhaustion and anxiety that begins within four weeks of childbirth and can last weeks, several months or up to a year. An estimated 10 to 18 percent of all new mothers develop the condition, and the rate rises to 30 to 35 percent among women with previously diagnosed mood disorders. Scientists long believed the symptoms were related to the large drop-off in the mother's estrogen levels following childbirth, but studies have shown that both depressed and nondepressed women have similar estrogen levels.
By studying mice, the Johns Hopkins researchers suspected that estrogen induced epigenetic changes in cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that governs mood. Kaminsky and his team then created a complicated statistical model to find the candidate genes most likely undergoing those epigenetic changes, which could be potential predictors for postpartum depression. That process resulted in the identification of two genes, known as TTC9B and HP1BP3, about which little is known save for their involv
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Johns Hopkins Medicine