Animal Research Can Help in Understanding of Postpartum Mood Disorders

Posted on June 4th, 2015
Posted in Mental Health

Because of deep similarities in all mammals, animal-based research can lead to an improved understanding of postpartum mood disorders in women, according to recent findings from a group of German researchers.

In the aftermath of childbirth, women have relatively small but very real chances of developing a mood disorder called postpartum depression. In addition, a few women develop an even more severe condition called postpartum psychosis. In a study published in late 2014 in the British Journal of Pharmacology, researchers from Germany’s University of Regensburg assessed the validity of using animal-based models to understand the underlying causes of these conditions. The researchers also assessed the validity of using animal-based models to develop treatments for women’s postpartum mental health issues.

Women and Postpartum Mental Health

In the U.S., up to 85 percent of new mothers develop a depression-like condition called the postpartum blues in the days or weeks following childbirth. In fact, cases of postpartum blues are so common that the condition may qualify as a natural post-pregnancy phenomenon, not as a mental health issue in the conventional sense of the term. Common indications of the condition include an unstable mood, an unusual tendency to become easily irritated and a heightened level of anxiousness. Unlike people with diagnosable depression, women with postpartum blues don’t typically develop intrusive forms of emotions such as helplessness, sadness or hopelessness.

Roughly 12 percent of new American mothers develop postpartum depression at some point during the months following childbirth. This more serious condition produces symptoms that overlap heavily with the symptoms of major depression, one of the nation’s most common mental health concerns. However, its effects also include postpartum-specific symptoms such as negative feelings toward a newborn child and loss of the ability to properly care for a newborn child. Postpartum psychosis is a hallucination- and delusion-based illness that appears in roughly 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of all new mothers in the U.S. Most individuals affected by this severe condition have a mood disorder classified as a bipolar disorder. Women with postpartum psychosis may try to kill themselves or their newborn infants. Additional mental health problems sometimes found in new mothers include postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder and postpartum panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

Animal Research

Generally speaking, researchers work with animals rather than humans when they need to do such things as perform highly invasive testing procedures or otherwise conduct experiments that would be clearly unethical if conducted with human subjects. The vast majority of animal testing in a mental health context involves rodent mammal species classified as rats or mice. Testing is also sometimes performed on other types of mammals. As a rule, researchers can effectively use other mammal species as substitutes for humans because the long-term process of evolution has created significant similarities between key organ systems in these species and equivalent systems in humans.

Improved Understanding of Postpartum Mood Disorders

In the study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, the researchers explored the rationale for using animal research as a path to understanding postpartum mood disorders. They undertook this project, in part, because the scientific community knows relatively little about the underlying reasons for the appearance of these disorders in substantial numbers of new mothers. The researchers note the similarities between other mammalian mothers and their human counterparts when it comes to the process of giving birth and undergoing the physical and behavioral changes needed to support newborns unable to take care of themselves for a considerable amount of time. Among other things, they looked at the usefulness of animal research as an aid to understanding the mood disorder-related impact of doing such things as consuming alcohol during pregnancy and smoking cigarettes during pregnancy.

The researchers preliminarily concluded that it’s difficult or impossible to create ethically responsible experiments capable of directly assessing many of the variables that may make women more susceptible to mood disorders (or anxiety disorders) in the aftermath of pregnancy. Overall, they found that the similarities between the biology and behavior of human beings and the animals used as human substitutes in laboratory testing are great enough to make lab experiments worthwhile as a method for understanding the underlying causes of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. In addition, the researchers found that the improved understanding brought about by animal research could contribute significantly to the odds of developing improved treatments for such disorders.

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