Diagnosing Postpartum Depression with a Brain Scan

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Postpartum depression strikes about 15% of mothers in the first months after delivery, but it’s not clear yet which women are at risk. Now researchers at University of Pittsburgh report on a brain-imaging test that may identify those new moms who are vulnerable to the disorder.

In a small study of 14 mothers with postpartum and 16 mentally healthy mothers, a group led by psychiatrist Dr. Eydie Moses-Kolko found that the two groups showed different brain activity when presented with pictures of fearful or threatening faces.

The women suffering from postpartum showed a dulled response in the regions of the brain responsible for regulating empathy and emotion compared to those without the disorder. That seems to support what other studies have found about the condition — that mothers tend to be less attuned to the needs or feelings of their infants, and less sensitive in general to their own emotions. (More on Time.com: Try As You May, Morning Sickness Is Here To Stay)

The brain scans also revealed an interesting difference in the way the women’s brain regions interacted. The brains of the depressed mothers showed a weaker connection between emotion-regulating areas than the brains of women without depression, suggesting that the disorder may have biological origins.

Pursuing such leads, says Moses-Kolko, will be the focus of future studies. “If we can do even more involved neuroimaging of postpartum depression, we may find other circuits of interest. We may even find subtypes within postpartum depression.” Getting more detailed information on the causes and types of postpartum illness may lead to better treatments as well. “We may be able to design or match more effective therapies based on the neural patterns we see in postpartum depressed women,” she says.

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