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What's Postpartum Depression?

Giving birth to a new baby can certainly elicit a cornucopia of emotions, from nervousness to excitement about the little bundle of joy. But for some mothers, the generally positive feelings are overshadowed by depression.

Postpartum depression may appear to be the "baby blues" a less severe sadness that only lasts a few days or weeks. Symptoms of the baby blues include mood swings, anxiety, sadness, irritability and crying, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The symptoms for postpartum depression, however, are more severe and sometimes last as long as six months. A mother with postpartum depression might have trouble bonding with her baby, and possibly have thoughts of harming herself or the newborn.

It turns out that the brains of women experiencing postpartum depression are different from those who are well, according to research published in the Sept. 15 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center compared mothers who had delivered infants within the past 12 weeks, 14 of them were depressed and 16 were healthy. Each mother was shown images of angry and scared faces while the researchers watched their brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

They found regions of the brain related to processing emotions their own as well as those of others were less active in the women with postpartum depression. This may explain why these mothers typically have trouble bonding with their newborns, the researchers said.

The study also identified a brain circuit that didn't "light up" in the depressed moms as they viewed the negative images, but was active in the healthy mothers. This neural pathway connects two regions of the brain (the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in social cognition, and the left amygdale) and could be important for "emotional response to unpleasant stimuli, such as a crying baby," the researchers reported in their study.

While the condition is still not completely understood, studies like this have "the potential to guide the development of more effective treatments for postpartum depression," study researcher Eydie Moses-Kolko, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said in a statement.

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Michelle writes about technology and chemistry for Live Science. She has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the Salisbury University, a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware and a degree in Science Journalism from New York University. She is an active Muay Thai kickboxer at Five Points Academy and loves exploring NYC with friends.