PhotoSymptoms of depression can strike as many as one in seven women during pregnancy. Left untreated, depression can pose potential risks to both the mother and baby.

Now, researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center say they have found a link between depression in pregnancy and a certain protein found in the brain, called BDNF.

“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.

Depression during pregnancy has been associated with low birth weight in babies. Other research suggests that babies born to mothers who are depressed may be less active and less easily soothed than babies born to moms who are not depressed.

The mood-regulating protein BDNF is vital during pregnancy because it’s needed to form and maintain the placenta and assist with the baby’s brain development. The authors say that while declines in BDNF aren’t entirely responsible for late-term depression, the study is among the first to suggest that it’s a factor.

Boosting BDNF levels

For the study, the researchers took blood serum samples from women during and after pregnancy. They found that 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.”

Fortunately, there are several ways to address the issue. Christian notes that antidepressant medications have been shown to increase BDNF levels, however the potential risks and side effects should be considered.

Another effective way to maintain BDNF levels is through exercise, she says.

“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.”

The study has been published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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