The Largest-Ever Study of Postpartum Depression Is Under Way, and It Uses an iPhone App

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One in eight, one in seven, or one in five new mothers suffers from postpartum depression, depending on whom you talk to.

“Recently, everyone’s settled on that one in seven number,” says Katherine Stone, founder of the nonprofit Postpartum Progress, which helps connect women suffering from PPD to one another in order to destigmatize the disease and inspire more people to get help.

Postpartum Progress is just one of the partners in a new study that aims to be the largest examination of postpartum depression ever. Run by Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s perinatal psychiatry program, the study uses an iPhone app to check in with women about their mental and emotional health.

The app, which Apple helped develop (and which you can find in the App Store), uses the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale — the standard method of screening — to ask participants a series of questions about their experience with PPD, both past and present. The innovation here, Dr. Meltzer-Brody says, is twofold. First, because the study uses an app, researchers can connect with women privately, anywhere and anytime — useful because of the stigma around PPD. And secondly, because it includes questions about the past, women can answer in hindsight about things that happened five or ten years ago.

Dr. Meltzer-Brody began planning for this project in 2010. The goal is to find the “biological underpinnings of postpartum depression,” she says, explaining that “the effect of pregnancy on the hormones is well-documented” and scientists believe “some complex genetic vulnerability” makes certain women more susceptible to PPD than others. Depression generally is an inheritable condition, and postpartum depression even more so, she says.

In the second, and possibly more promising, step of the study, qualifying participants will be able to test their genes using a spit kit similar to those offered by commercial DNA-testing companies such as 23andMe and ancestry.com, which use the tests for genealogy purposes. The kits have been paid for by the National Institute of Mental Health, meaning they’ll be free for participants. Researchers will then use their data to study, and hopefully isolate, the genetic markers for postpartum depression.

Dr. Meltzer-Brody says she doesn’t expect to find only “one or two markers” in the DNA for PPD, such as there are for other diseases. “It’s going to be a complex picture,” she predicts.

She hopes that the app-based model will let her study reach 100,000 participants worldwide, making it the largest ever on PPD. So far, the app and spit kits are available in the United States, the U.K., and Australia, with more countries joining up later this year.