(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – As many as one in seven women suffer from depression during pregnancy, which not only impacts the mood of the mother, but also the health of the baby. Now, researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center have linked the issue to a certain protein found in the brain.
“We found that levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, decline pretty significantly from early to late pregnancy, and that causes a wide range of issues,” said Lisa Christian, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study. “Women who had steeper declines of BDNF had a greater risk for depression late in pregnancy and also had a higher risk for delivering babies of low birth weight.”
BDNF helps to regulate mood in all of us, but in pregnant women, it’s also needed to form and maintain the placenta and assist with the baby’s brain development.
For the study, researchers took blood serum samples during and after pregnancy from 139 women. They observed steady declines of BDNF throughout pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. Though declines in BDNF aren’t solely responsible for late-term depression or low birth weight, this study is among the first to suggest it is a factor.
“The good news is, there are some good ways to address the issue,” said Christian. “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,” she said. “Luckily, another very effective way is through exercise. With approval from your physician, staying physically active during pregnancy can help maintain BDNF levels, which has benefits for a woman’s mood, as well as for her baby’s development.”