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Spring Research Update

When the 'Baby Blues' Linger - Investigating Postpartum Depression

Photo by Tim Simpson
Photo by Tim Simpson/Flickr

The birth of a child for many couples and families is a time of celebration. Yet, 10-15 percent of new mothers are overwhelmed with negative emotions and anxiety and may have trouble sleeping or lose their appetite for an extended period of time. It’s a condition known as postpartum depression (PPD), a condition that can interfere with a new mother's ability to care for her baby.

Heather Rupp, assistant scientist at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, has received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to study the mechanisms behind postpartum depression.

"Not only can postpartum depression interfere with a new mother's ability to care for her newborn, it can be confusing and misunderstood by the woman and her family," Rupp said. "My colleagues and I will be investigating whether oxytocin, a hormone that reduces the physiological stress response and promotes social bonding, buffers new mothers against depression through its influences on their neural responsiveness to stress, and whether this process is disrupted in some way in women suffering from postpartum depression."

Co-investigators are Julia Heiman, director of the The Kinsey Institute; Thomas James, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Kinsey Institute research fellow; Dale Sengelaub, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Kinsey Institute senior research fellow; Ellen Ketterson, professor in the Department of Biology and Kinsey Institute senior research fellow; and Beate Ditzen, researcher at The University of Zurich in Switzerland.

The prefrontal-limbic system is a part of the brain that may be involved in maternal behavior. New mothers generally show changes in the responsiveness of the prefrontal-limbic system to infants in ways that differ from women who have not just given birth. New mothers may also show less sensitivity to stress. Additionally, women who suffer depression outside of the postpartum period show heightened responsiveness of the prefrontal-limbic system in response to stress, suggesting an overlap in circuits critical to maternal behavior and those altered by depression. It is unknown whether changes in this prefrontal limbic system are related to postpartum depression (PPD).

The mechanism for altered neural responsiveness in the postpartum period may involve oxytocin, which also occurs at higher levels in new mothers. It is hypothesized that this makes the new mother less affected, generally, by negative stressors from the outside world, but more responsive to her infant.

The study will involve three groups of women -- new mothers who are not depressed, new mothers with PPD, and women who have never given birth. Using fMRI technology, Rupp and her colleagues will compare brain activity in the three groups in response to a series of images. Some of the women will also receive an oxytocin nasal spray. The study results will provide a better understanding of brain activity in women with postpartum depression, and the role of oxytocin in the early stages of motherhood.

If you are located near Bloomington, Indiana, you may be eligible to participate in this study >

Developing Better Tools to Measure Female Sexual Response

One of the challenges of research into issues of female desire and sexual response is the lack of instruments that accurately capture the complex interplay of genital changes in women. Most research instruments are only able to monitor one parameter at a time and are not easily combined with additional sources of stimulation needed, for example, to study the role of sexual arousal in anorgasmia.

Kinsey Institute researchers Drs. Erick Janssen and Julia Heiman, together with Dr. Ben Sachtler of Corpora Systems, Inc. and Wendy Kinsey Corning, M.D., are pursuing a project to develop a new instrument that can monitor several parameters in female genitalia simultaneously. The new device facilitates clitoral and vaginal stimulation and measurements that are less intrusive during more advanced stages of arousal.

The project has already moved through Phase 1, which involved testing a fully functioning prototype. Users likened fitting the vaginal probe to inserting a menstrual tampon, which suggests it will be easy for subjects to use. In Phase 2, the system will be refined and tested more extensively, in a larger group of women. The result would be an instrument that could be used in both basic and clinical research, with potential for direct application in clinical practice as well. The study is funded through the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NIDDK, a division of NIH.



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