Researchers think they can help the more than 3 million women who experience postpartum depression by identifying genomic markers of the disorder that may help them treat or prevent it. Photo by OndroM/Shutterstock
CHAPEL HILL, N.C., March 22 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of North Carolina are launching a large study on postpartum depression, using an iPhone app to recruit women in the hope of identifying genetic markers that indicate higher risk for the disorder.
Although the conditions leading to depression differ by type and patient, researchers think basic similarity between all postpartum depression patients -- having recently given birth -- suggests some common genomic markers that can be used to predict, diagnose or treat it.
Women who download the PPD ACT app, which is available in the iPhone's App Store in the United States and Australia, and is planned for future release in England, are asked a series of questions about childbirth and mood and anxiety symptoms afterward.
Based on their responses, the researchers will invite about 100,000 women to participate in the study by mailing in a saliva sample. Researchers will analyze the women's DNA, comparing it to the DNA of healthy women to search for genetic differences indicating depression risk.
Identifying genetic markers for depression has largely not been successful, but Dr. Patrick Sullivan told the New York Times that studying postpartum depression in women is "the right time, biologically, to do this" because all participants would have been through the same major life event.
Each of the women will be genotyped for 600,000 genetic markers and compared to women who have been pregnant at least twice but not experienced depression, Sullivan said.
Organizers behind the study, Postpartum Depression: Action Towards Causes and Treatment, say the benefit of using a smartphone app is greater access to a large number of potential participants, which is required for studies on psychiatric disorders.
PPD ACT is built on Apple's ResearchKit framework, which has been used for several other apps to support health studies, including the SleepHealth collaboration with IBM, the MyHeart Counts app developed by the University of Stanford and the Asthma Health App designed at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
PPD ACT, as well as MyHeart Counts and the Asthma Health App, were designed in coordination with 23AndMe and the National Institutes of Health, according to a press release. NIH is working with research universities to provide "spit kits" for customers to send in DNA samples, and 23AndMe is making use of its DNA database of customers' genomic data.
"We believe it's a real game changer for our ability to understand the biologic causes of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis and to use state of art science to develop innovative treatments, and that's the overall goal," Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the perinatal psychiatry program at the University of North Carolina, told CNN. "Our overall goal is to prevent anyone else from suffering with these devastating disorders, and we need to know more about the underlying biology, the genetic risk."