Post-natal ‘happy pill’ Daily Mail, Thursday May 12,2011

By Fiona MacRae (Science Correspondant)

A ‘ cuddle chemical’ released during love-making and breastfeeding could hold the key to preventing post-natal depression. According to research, women with low levels of the hormone oxytocin during pregnancy are more likely to feel down after their baby is born.
The finding raises the possibility that oxytocin could be measured in mothers-to-be – and a top-up pill given to those found to be lacking.

Post-natal depression affects up to 19 per cent of new mothers. What is more, the children of those affected are at higher risk of mental illness in later life, so any means of heading off the problem could have major implications. Oxytocin is made by the brain during sex, breastfeeding and labour. It fosters feelings of trust, love and affection.

As studies show women with higher levels of the ‘cuddle hormone’ find it easier to adapt to motherhood, the Swiss and U.S. researchers looked at whether a shortage of the chemical is linked to the trouble in bonding that comes with post-natal depression. For the research, 74 healthy pregnant women had their hormone levels measured in the last two to three months of pregnancy. They also answered questions designed to pick up symptoms of depression and were questioned again a fortnight after giving birth.

The analysis found a clear link between low oxytocin in pregnancy and symptoms of depression after giving birth.In addistion, women who felt down when pregnant were more likely to struggle after the birth the journal Neuropschopharmacology reports. Dr Gunther Meinischmidt of the University of Basel , said future studies should look at whether boosting oxytocin in pregnancy cuts the odds of post-natal depression. He added that early identification of women at risk ‘could allow for early preventative interventions and minimise adverse effects for the well-being of mother and child’.

There could, however, be a rather inconvenient side effect to the treatment, as oxytocin is used in hospitals to induce labour.

Dr Carmine Pariante, an expert in the psychiatry of pregnancy and motherhood from King’s College London, said:’This study shows for the first time that levels of oxytocin- the “bonding” hormone – are reduced in pregnancy in women who later develop post-partum depression.’

She added:’ The study confirms the notion that depression in the perinatal period often starts in pregnancy, and has profound effects on the mother-child relationship.’

Post-natal depression is more common in women with a history of depression and those lacking support or whose baby needs extra care. It is also more likely to strike women with baby boys than girls perhaps because male babies are perceived as being ‘more difficult.’ It can last more than a year in severe cases, with symptoms ranging from panic attacks to thoughts of suicide and harming the baby. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has described her battle with the condition, following the birth of her son Moses in 2006, as ‘one of the darkest and most painfully debilitating’ times of her life.

APNI Comment:
This research is most interesting but it is important that the findings are confirmed investigating a much larger number of women. As a predictive tool oxytocin levels in pregnancy could be very useful to identify women who may be ‘at risk’ of developing post-natal depression. Early intervention could then greatly reduce the length and severity of any episode of depression.