Specific Protein Level Correlates with Depression During Pregnancy, Birth Defects

Researchers pinpoint depression biomarker during pregnancy and how to treat it.

Depression related to pregnancy is far from being a foreign concept. The American Psychological Association is just one organization backing the estimate that one in seven women suffers from postpartum depression. An Ohio State University study pinpointed a biomarker for the depression as well as potential ways to treat it.

While low levels of the biomarker brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein and member of the neurotrophin family of growth factors—have been linked to depression in previous studies, the study cohorts primarily consisted of non-pregnant adults.

When the researchers analyzed blood serum samples both during and after pregnancy from 139 women, they observed considerable differences in BDNF levels.

“Our research shows BDNF levels change considerably across pregnancy and provide predictive value for depressive symptoms in women, as well as poor fetal growth,” principal investigator Lisa M. Christian, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, said in a news release.

Those reduced BDNF levels were noticeable in the first (weeks one to 12), second (weeks 13 to 27), and third (week 28 to birth) trimesters.

Race played an important role in the BDNF levels, with African American women having significantly higher levels than Caucasian women in the perinatal period. When race was taken out of the equation, having lower levels during the second and third trimesters was the biggest predictor of depressive symptoms in the final trimester.

“The good news is there are some good ways to address the issue,” Christian continued. “Antidepressant medications have been shown to increase BDNF levels. This may be appropriate for some pregnant women, but is not without potential risks and side effects.”

Antidepressants, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can cause adverse events in the babies born to mothers on the medication—including brain, skull, heart, and abdominal defects. From 2008 to 2013, the most commonly prescribed antidepressants for privately insured women ages 15 to 44 were sertraline (Zoloft), bupropion (Wellbutrin), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), and fluoxetine (Prozac)—all of which are SSRIs, except bupropion—as documented by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, Christian pointed out that exercise is another effective option to increase BDNF levels.

A low BDNF levels could also hurt infants all on its own. The findings showed that the women in the study who had significantly lower BDNF levels in the third trimester were more likely to give birth to a baby with a low weight. However, these women didn’t have differing depressive symptoms.

With race being a strong factor in this research, the authors concluded that additional studies are needed to examine these racial differences.

The study, “Serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) across pregnancy and postpartum: Associations with race, depressive symptoms, and low birth weight,” was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. The news release was provided by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

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