Heather Rupp, assistant scientist at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, has received a $423,500 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study the mechanisms behind postpartum depression, a condition that can interfere with a new mother’s ability to care for her baby.
The birth of a child for many couples and families is a time of celebration. Yet, 10-15 percent of new mothers are overwhelmed with negative emotions and anxiety and may have trouble sleeping or lose their appetite for an extended period of time.
“Not only can postpartum depression interfere with a new mother’s ability to care for her newborn, it can be confusing and misunderstood by the woman and her family,” Rupp said. “My colleagues and I will be investigating whether oxytocin, a hormone that reduces the physiological stress response and promotes social bonding, buffers new mothers against depression through its influences on their neural responsiveness to stress, and whether this process is disrupted in some way in women suffering from postpartum depression.”
Co-investigators are Julia Heiman, director of the The Kinsey Institute; Thomas James, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Kinsey Institute research fellow; Dale Sengelaub, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Kinsey Institute senior research fellow; Ellen Ketterson, professor in the Department of Biology and Kinsey Institute senior research fellow; and Beate Ditzen, researcher at The University of Zurich in Switzerland.
The prefrontal-limbic system is a part of the brain that may be involved in maternal behavior. New mothers generally show changes in the responsiveness of the prefrontal-limbic system to infants in ways that differ from women who have not just given birth. New mothers may also show less sensitivity to stress. Additionally, women who suffer depression outside of the postpartum period show heightened responsiveness of the prefrontal-limbic system in response to stress, suggesting an overlap in circuits critical to maternal behavior and those altered by depression. It is unknown whether changes in this prefrontal limbic system are related to postpartum depression (PPD).
The mechanism for altered neural responsiveness in the postpartum period may involve oxytocin, which also occurs at higher levels in new mothers. It is hypothesized that this makes the new mother less affected, generally, by negative stressors from the outside world, but more responsive to her infant.
The study will involve three groups of women — new mothers who are not depressed, new mothers with PPD, and women who have never given birth. Using fMRI technology, Rupp and her colleagues will compare brain activity in the three groups in response to a series of images. Some of the women will also receive an oxytocin nasal spray. The study results will provide a better understanding of brain activity in women with postpartum depression, and the role of oxytocin in the early stages of motherhood.