What are the main causes of perinatal mood disorders?
Current theories support a sensitivity to fluctuations in levels of gonadal hormones (estrogen and progesterone), that rise to high levels during pregnancy and then markedly drop at the time of delivery. This rise and fall occurs in all women that give birth, but some women appear to be more sensitive to these fluctuations. It is suspected that genetics plays an important role in the differential sensitivity. However, environmental factors, such as early adverse life trauma, can also play a role.
What are you finding so far in your research on genetic factors?
Our work has shown that perinatal depression is a more heritable form of depression that major depression outside of the perinatal period. This work was conducted with Swedish colleagues using Swedish datasets. We are currently working on a large scale study using iPhones to recruit a large sample of women that have experienced either postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis so we can conduct a genetic analysis to understand why some women develop these disorders and others do not. Our long term goal is to develop ways of screening women before they develop these disorders so we can intervene much earlier.
What is one finding that surprised you the most in your research?
Perinatal depression is complicated due to the complex hormonal changes that occur during this vulnerable time. In addition, many other biological systems are involved and it is a profound time from a psychological perspective too. So, all in all, I am always humbled by the complexity.
What surprised you the most about parenting?
I have been most surprised by the fact that kids come out with their “hard drives” already determined! The goal of parenting seems to be to help kids become the best version of themselves.