Methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene linked to postpartum depression in prenatally nondepressive women

Written by Rebecca Sheehan

A multi-institutional team from the USA and England have identified a marker in the blood that could be used to identify women who may be at risk of postpartum depression (PPD), a disorder affecting almost 19% of new mothers. The recent findings, published in Frontiers in Genetics, documents a link between PPD and methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR).
The significance of oxytocin in maternal behavior is already widely accepted, including the link between low levels of the hormone and PPD onset. PPD can negatively affect both maternal and infant health, and put infants at an increased risk of poor behavioral, social and cognitive development. Identifying at risk women prior to the onset of PPD could therefore greatly improve the eventual outcome.

Given the importance of oxytocin, the research team investigated the role of the oxytocin receptor, identifying a potentially important relationship between OXTR genetic and epigenetic markers and an increased risk of developing PPD in women that had not previously been diagnosed with depression prenatally. Conclusions pointed to the role of epigenetic variation, through DNA methylation, in reducing OXTR expression in susceptible genotype groups and consequently contributing to PPD development.

“Our data need to be replicated,” stated first author Aleeca Bell (University of Illinois, IL, USA), “but it is our hope that the oxytocin receptor marker we have identified will be useful to clinicians in identifying women at risk for postpartum depression.”

Sources: University of Virginia press release; Bell AF, Carter CS, Steer CD et al. Interaction between oxytocin receptor DNA methylation and genotype is associated with risk of postpartum depression in women without depression in pregnancy. Front. Genet. 6, 24 (2015).