The brain, mental health and therapeutics
A new dietary kit, developed as a result of brain imaging research, reduced the baby blues in women after giving birth
Why is brain research so important in mental illness and addictions?
The story behind a new dietary therapeutic kit shows how a better understanding of the brain can lead to health benefits.
In a CAMH study by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer, published earlier this year, this dietary kit led to a dramatic drop in “baby blues” among women after giving birth. Postpartum blues are common among women, but when severe, substantially increase the risk of clinically diagnosed postpartum depression (PPD). Overall, PPD affects 13 per cent of new mothers and is the most common complication of child-bearing.
As with other forms of depression and mental illness in general, postpartum depression is caused by a combination of factors such as a person’s genetics, environment and experiences. Specific symptoms are due to biological changes in the brain’s complex networks and chemical neurotransmitters.
Brain imaging is one way to help unravel how these networks and chemicals are linked to mental health and illness. Dr. Meyer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, has led a number of major studies in this area. Dr. Meyer heads the Neuroimaging Program in Mood & Anxiety, part of the Research Imaging Centre in CAMH’s Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute.
In an earlier study, Dr. Meyer’s group had shown a surge in the brain protein MAO-A in the early postpartum phase. MAO-A breaks down three brain chemicals that help maintain mood: serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. When these chemicals are depleted, it can lead to feelings of sadness. MAO-A levels peak five days after giving birth, the same time when postpartum blues are most pronounced. In another previous study, Dr. Meyer showed that this also resembles brain changes that last for longer periods in clinical depression.
Based on these findings, Dr. Meyer developed a nutritional kit with three supplements carefully selected to compensate for a surge in the brain protein MAO-A.
The kit includes tryptophan and tyrosine, which compensate for the loss of the three mood-regulating chemicals, as well as a blueberry extract with blueberry juice for anti-oxidant effects. Dr. Meyer’s team had also tested and confirmed that the tryptophan and tyrosine supplements, given in higher amounts than people would normally get in their diet, did not affect the overall concentrations in breast milk.
The current study, administered by research fellow Dr. Yekta Dowlati, included 21 women who received the supplements and a comparison group of 20 mothers who did not. It was an open-label study, meaning the women knew they were receiving nutritional supplements. The supplements were taken over three days, starting on the third day after giving birth.
On day five after giving birth – when the baby blues peak – the women underwent tests to assess the kit’s effect on mood. The testing included sad mood induction, which measured the ability to be resilient against sad events. The women read and reflected on statements with sentiments that expressed pessimism, dissatisfaction and lethargy, and then listened to a sad piece of classical music. Before and after this test, researchers measured depressive symptoms.
The results were dramatic. Women who were not taking the supplements had a significant increase in depression scores. In contrast, women taking the dietary supplements did not experience any depressed mood. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“We believe this is the first study to show such a strong, beneficial effect of an intervention in reducing the baby blues at a time when postpartum sadness peaks,” says Dr. Meyer, who holds a Canada Research Chair in the Neurochemistry of Major Depression. “Postpartum blues are common and usually resolves 10 days after giving birth, but when they are intense, the risk of postpartum depression increases four-fold.”
These effects need to be replicated in a larger sample in a randomized, controlled trial. Further study could assess the kit’s ability to reduce both the postpartum blues as well as clinically diagnosed postpartum depression.
While the potential will take time to be fully realized, the kit is an important example of how brain imaging studies have led to a new therapeutic method that has potential to help women after giving birth, and perhaps even prevent PPD.
“Developing successful nutrition-based treatments, based on neurobiology, is rare in psychiatry,” says Dr. Meyer. “We believe our approach also represents a promising new avenue for creating other new dietary supplements for medicinal use.”
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