Researchers Are Getting Closer to a Cure for Postpartum Depression

Mother and child
Mother and child Photo: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

Postpartum depression is a form of mental illness that affects approximately 10 to 15 percent of women who give birth, though accurate numbers are hard to estimate because of the stigma attached to it. Now there are early signs that an effective treatment could finally be on the horizon.

Currently, treatment options for postpartum depression are the same as those for any other form of depression: therapy and/or antidepressants, depending on the length and severity of symptoms. Though fears about the effects of medication on breast-feeding are understandable, several antidepressants have been shown to be safe for nursing moms. Still, nothing currently on the market is specifically for treatment of PPD in particular, and standard antidepressants can be a poor fit — they often take weeks or months to work, and postpartum depression often comes on very abruptly and intensely.

Sage Therapeutics, a company founded in 2010 that is also testing drugs for epilepsy, reported this week a small but very successful testing round for an experimental drug on 21 women suffering from moderate to severe postpartum depression. The drug, which the company is calling Sage-547, was given, via injection, to 10 women, while the remaining 11 were given a placebo. Of the group who received the drug, seven reported remission of their PPD symptoms within 60 hours — less than three days — and none reported any of the side effects common with other antidepressants: abnormal dreams, insomnia, or anxiety. All of the seven who reported remission maintained it for a month. Only one person in the placebo group reported a remission of her PPD after 60 hours, while five of them reported psychiatric side effects including anxiety, bad dreams, and insomnia.

One of the most promising things about Sage-547 is that it has a very short half-life, meaning it becomes effective more quickly than other drugs. Though the women in the trial were asked to stop breast-feeding for ten days while taking the drug, it’s possible it could be taken for a short time period, interfering much less with nursing than more traditional drugs.

The next step, Sage says, is to test smaller doses (the first ten were given relatively large amounts, as is common in very early trials of pharmaceuticals) on larger numbers of women. “This is potentially one of the most important clinical findings in the pharmacologic treatment of postpartum depression to date,” said Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, a researcher from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has been researching postpartum depression and who oversaw the trial, in a written statement. “The data show the potential of the drug to provide relief from the debilitating symptoms of PPD, and to markedly decrease suffering in women who are severely affected.” So, while Sage-547 still has a very long way to go before hitting the market, today’s news is an important step.

Could Sage-547 Be a Postpartum-Depression Cure?