CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Author's note: The video above is on file from a separate story that aired on June 23, 2022.
Emerging research from the University of Virginia is shedding light on an issue that impacts up to 20% of new mothers.
Postpartum depression (PPD) is a diagnosable condition that causes mental, emotional and physical complications for moms -- and the symptoms can also have long-term implications for their babies.
Common symptoms include anxiety, mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia and changes to weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many women also feel incredibly high levels of guilt, because postpartum depression can cause you to feel like you may not truly love your child, or make you doubt your ability to care for them.
But now, researchers are starting to have a better grasp on the factors that influence the condition. There's a possibility that your chance of having postpartum depression is determined even before you give birth, based on your biology.
An ongoing collaboration between medical professionals at UVA Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine and Weill Cornell Medicine has discovered that the cause may boil down to some basic components.
Your body has trillions of cells that are constantly sending each other signals. This communication helps your body in a variety of different ways, from making sure you breathe to healing wounds.
Recently, scientists discovered a new type of internal communication that happens mainly during pregnancy. It's called extracellular RNA communication, and it helps the process of implantation for an embryo.
In this latest finding, doctors and researchers looked at blood plasma samples of participants before and after their pregnancies. Some of the participants developed postpartum depression, and others did not.
They found that cell communication was disrupted in those who had postpartum. This disruption made it harder for their bodies to do important clean-up duties on the cellular level.
“The finding that cells aren’t cleaning out old proteins and cellular debris, called autophagy, occurs before women develop depression symptoms, indicating that it could be part of the disease process,” said Jennifer L. Payne, MD, director of the Reproductive Psychiatry Research Program at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
“There are several medications that promote autophagy in cells, so this finding might open the door to new treatments and to identification of women at risk of postpartum depression before they become ill.”
This development means that researchers could break down walls that currently exist in women's perinatal health.
First and foremost, they could create tests that would identify if a woman has an increased risk for postpartum depression before it develops.
“I hope very much this finding leads to better treatments for postpartum depression,” Payne said.
“Our goal is to one day prevent PPD in women at risk.”