A new app has developed by researchers at the University of North Carolina for the purposeful of potentially finding genetic clues about postpartum depression. PPD ACT, free and available for iPhone, will be part of Apple’s ResearchKit and will ask users a series of questions about anxiety and sadness after pregnancy in order to assess postpartum depression.

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The New York Times reports that women with high scores will be asked if they’d like to submit a DNA sample to researchers at UNC. If users agree, they will be mailed an oral kit. Researchers assured the Times that even though personal information like name and address are required, that data will be encrypted in order to preserve privacy.

Once collected, the samples will “be individually genotyped for something like 600,000 genetic markers scattered throughout the genome,” Dr. Patrick F. Sullivan, the study’s lead and director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Psychiatric Genomics, told the Times. Those samples will be compared to data taken from women who have had two pregnancies but have not experienced postpartum depression. The team hopes to collect 100,000 samples from a diverse group of users. Dr. Sullivan said that the purpose of the study was to answer a nagging question: “Are there regions of the genome where women with postpartum depression differ systematically from women without?”

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It’s an interesting question, and UNC’s team hopes to find a clear answer in order to provide better treatment, as well as predictive models, for women who experience postpartum. The Times notes that the search for relationship between genetics and mood disorders has been historically difficult:

Compared with many physical illnesses, the genetics of psychiatric disorders have so far proved complex and elusive to understand. Even one of the most heritable disorders, schizophrenia, appears linked to small variations in more than a hundred genetic regions. Recently, though, a genetic variant has been identified that seems to ignite excessive pruning of synapses in a key brain area in people with schizophrenia.

PPD Act. Image via iTunes.

But Sullivan and his team maintain that postpartum depression is more discrete than broad sweeping disorders like depression and thus easier to trace. Some scientists and researchers outside of the project question whether or not looking for a genetic trait is worthwhile, arguing that postpartum is hormonal and environmental and, therefore, unlikely to be genetic. Others, however, agree with Sullivan’s hunch that genetic variants might have an effect.

Whether or not UNC’s researchers find a genetic link, investing in postpartum research is long overdue. Compared with other mood disorders, it remains understudied, and treatments often lag behind patient needs.


Image via Getty.