Until now, experts were unsure exactly what triggers postnatal depression. But researchers in the US and UK have discovered some women may be missing the gene that helps them produce oxytocin, often dubbed the 'cuddle hormone'

Scientists today hailed a ‘breakthrough’ after uncovering a major potential treatment for postnatal depression. 

Until now, experts were unsure exactly what triggers the condition despite the fact that one in ten women are affected before or after giving birth.

But researchers in the US and UK have discovered those affected may be missing genes that allow the body to produce the hormone oxytocin. 

Dubbed the ‘cuddle hormone’, oxytocin is released during childbirth, breastfeeding and in response to hugging, helping stimulate feelings of attachment. 

Without sufficient amounts, new mothers may struggle to bond with their baby, triggering low mood. Now experts suggest developing new oxytocin medicines may be a way to help combat these symptoms.

Until now, experts were unsure exactly what triggers postnatal depression. But researchers in the US and UK have discovered some women may be missing the gene that helps them produce oxytocin, often dubbed the 'cuddle hormone'

Until now, experts were unsure exactly what triggers postnatal depression. But researchers in the US and UK have discovered some women may be missing the gene that helps them produce oxytocin, often dubbed the ‘cuddle hormone’

Professor Sadaf Farooqi from the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge: ‘We have made a breakthrough in understanding postnatal depression, a serious health problem about which very little is known despite many decades of research. 

‘And importantly, it may point to oxytocin as a possible treatment for some mothers with this condition.

‘This research reminds us that many behaviours which we assume are entirely under our control have a strong basis in biology.’

The researchers, led by scientists at the University of Cambridge and Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, made their discovery while looking at the genes of two boys from different families.

Both were living with severe obesity and also suffered from anxiety, autism, and behavioural problems.

They found they each were missing a single gene known as TRPC5.

Their mothers were also missing the gene. Both mothers were obese and both had suffered postnatal depression.

Examining the missing gene in studies on mice, the scientists then discovered that male mice with a defective form of the gene displayed the same problems as the boys. 

This included weight gain, anxiety, a dislike of social interactions and aggressive behaviour.

Female mice showed similar behaviours. 

And when they became mothers they also displayed depressive-like behaviour and ‘impaired care of offspring,’ the experts said.

Writing in the journal Cell, researchers said they found TRPC5 acts on the nerve cells that produce the hormone oxytocin.

Deleting the TRPC5 gene from these oxytocin neurons led to otherwise healthy mice showing signs of anxiety, overeating, impaired social skills and, in the case of mothers, postnatal depression-like symptoms.

By making changes to the TRPC5 gene so that more oxytocin was produced, the scientists ‘reversed’ these symptoms: mice began behaving normally a lost weight. 

The experts suggest treatments that help increase oxytocin the body may produce similar results in humans, although more research would be needed.  

Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus part of the brain and secreted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. 

Studies have shown oxytocin also may have anxiolytic properties, meaning it may help reduce anxiety.

Previous researchers has also found when oxytocin is administered to people with autism via a nasal spray, it made them more sociable.

Postnatal depression causes intense feelings of sadness, anxiety and exhaustion that usually begin two to three days after the birth and can last months.

Other symptoms include insomnia, loss of appetite, intense irritability and difficulty bonding with the baby.

In rare cases, an extreme disorder called postpartum psychosis may develop.

Existing treatment includes talking therapy or traditional antidepressants, but these can take weeks to kick in.

Latest NHS data shows 26 per cent of adults in England are obese and a further 38 per cent are overweight but not obese.

Experts have pointed to a lack of exercise, and poor diets high in ultra-processed food, as being key drivers in the UK’s obesity epidemic.

Dr Yong Xu, an expert in molecular and cellular biology from Baylor College of Medicine, said: ‘What we saw in those mice was quite remarkable. 

‘They displayed very similar behaviours to those seen in people missing the TRPC5 gene, which in mothers included signs of depression and a difficulty caring for their babies. This shows us that this gene is causing these behaviours.’

Professor Farooqi added: ‘There’s a reason why people lacking TRPC5 develop all of these conditions.

‘Our work shows that TRPC5 acts on oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamus to play a critical role in regulating our instincts.’


Postnatal depression is a form of the mental-health condition that affects more than one in 10 women in the UK and US within a year of giving birth.

As many men can be affected as women, research suggests.  

Many parents feel down, teary and anxious within the first two weeks of having a child, which is often called the ‘baby blues’.

But if symptoms start later or last longer, they may be suffering from postnatal depression.

Postnatal depression is just as serious as others form of the mental-health disorder. 

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Lack of enjoyment or interest in the wider world
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Struggling to bond with your baby
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Frightening thoughts, such as hurting your baby

Sufferers should not wait for their symptoms to just go away.

Instead they should recognise that it is not their fault they are depressed and it does not make them a bad parent.

If you or your partner may be suffering, talk to your GP or health visitor.

Treatments can include self-help, such as talking to loved ones, resting when you can and making time to do things you enjoy. Therapy may also be prescribed. 

In severe cases where other options have not helped, antidepressants may be recommended. Doctors will prescribe ones that are safe to take while breastfeeding.

Postnatal depression’s cause is unclear, however, it is more common in those with a history of mental-health problems. 

Lack of support from loved ones, a poor relationship with the partner and a life-changing event, such as bereavement, can also raise the risk. 

Source: NHS

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