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Ohio State researchers study depression in women during pregnancy

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Lisa Christian, associate professor of psychiatry, (left) discusses the findings of her latest study with a colleague at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Christian found that during the final stages of pregnancy, women experience a dramatic drop in a protein in the brain known as BDNF, which may contribute to depression and low birth weights for babies. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State

Ohio State researchers recently discovered links between a substance in the brain and depression during pregnancy, a problem which affects more than one out of 10 new mothers.

Lisa Michelle Christian, an associate professor of psychiatry in the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, found that depression in women during pregnancy is highly connected to lower blood levels of a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which also could influence the child’s development.

“BDNF, in pregnancy, serves multiple functions,” Christian said. “It affects maternal mood, and also it’s important for fetal brain development.”

Christian said BDNF is a protein that is important for the functioning of neurons, which is the basic building block cell of the brain. BDNF is related to cognitive function, memory and mood.

“BDNF (has) been studied quite extensively on nonpregnant adults in relation to depression,” Christian said. “But there was very little data about how this was affecting maternal mood in pregnancy.”

In observing the blood-serum samples during and after pregnancy from 139 women, Christian and her team observed a regular decline of BDNF throughout the pregnancy.

“BDNF predicted higher risk for either depressive symptoms that link to pregnancy or having a baby with low birth weight,” Christian said. “The women who have depressive symptoms were predominantly different women than the ones that deliver low birth weight in the study.”

The study also found a significant difference in BDNF levels between races. The overall levels of BDNF were lower in African Americans compared to Caucasians, but the cause is unknown, Christian said.

“Lower BDNF levels predicted depressive symptoms in both groups, but it was only predictive when you compare women with the same race,” Christian said. “Lower levels in African Americans compared to other African Americans were predictive, but compared to the whites, it didn’t provide the same predictive value.”

However, there are ways to support healthy BDNF levels. A diet lower in sugar and higher in fatty acids supports BDNF production, Christian said. Amanda Marie Mitchell, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Wexner Center, said exercise can help as well.

“I just want to emphasize that it’s important to consider, both during pregnancy and outside pregnancy, health and well-being,” Mitchell said. “Exercise, healthy eating, mood and stress is really important to consider for overall health.”

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