Research — 10 December 2014

A new study suggests an expanded research agenda on animals could help to improve knowledge on human psychiatric conditions that occur after birth.

Experts say that in the days shortly after giving birth, mothers often experience a period of increased calmness and decreased stress responses. But around one in five new moms experience anxiety. There is also a risk of postpartum depression, and around one in 1,000 can develop psychosis.

The latest evidence indicates that these distressing responses to motherhood are still poorly understood.

In a new article, Drs. David Slattery and Clara Perani highlight that anxiety, depression, and psychosis during this postpartum period not only affect the well-being of the mother but also place at risk the long-term health of the infant.

Infant care and bonding can also be altered, which in turn may lead to long-term behavioral and emotional problems for the child.

The paper is found in the British Journal of Pharmacology.

Despite their seriousness, little is known about the causes of postpartum disorders. Slattery and Perani believe animal research could play a greater role.bigstock_Motherhood_25839

“All female mammals give birth, produce milk, and adapt their behavior in order to care for the offspring. Research in rodents shows that they too experience a host of important behavioral and physiological alterations during this time.

“For example, just like most breastfeeding mothers, rodents are generally calmer and show a smaller increase in the stress hormone cortisol when subjected to stress,” Slattery said.

Factors like smoking, drinking alcohol throughout pregnancy, and marital status, all influence the likelihood of a mother developing these sorts of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, having a previous history of a mood condition places a woman at greater risk.

“While we know this from observing women, what we need now is a greater understanding of the underlying causes and mechanisms so that we can begin to identify mothers who are at risk and start to provide them with preventative advice and effective therapies,” said Slattery.

While it is very difficult to impose experimental restraints on women, some of the factors such as diet or repeated exposure to stress during pregnancy can be explored in research involving animals.

Identification of such causes could lead to better treatment and faster diagnosis of the disorders, which would help both the mother and her child.

“Long-term, we hope that increased study, involving both animals and humans, will improve our understanding of postpartum psychiatric disorders, and lead to improved, earlier diagnosis and to novel treatment approaches for this particular time period of a woman’s life,” said Slattery.

This article first appeared on ‘Psych Central’ on 9 December 2014.


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