Depression during pregnancy and the post-partum is common, with severe cases resulting in suicidal behavior. Despite the urgent and unmet medical need, the biological underpinnings of peri-partum depression remain unclear. It has been suggested that it is triggered by dynamic changes of the immune system during pregnancy and at delivery. Therefore, we investigated whether a pro-inflammatory status in plasma, together with changes in the kynurenine pathway activity, is associated with the development of severe depression and suicidal behavior in the post-partum. Our cross-sectional study targets a unique, understudied population in which the pronounced severity of symptoms required hospitalization. We analyzed plasma IL-1β, IL-2, IL-6, IL-8, TNF-α, tryptophan, serotonin, kynurenine, nicotinamide, quinolinic- and kynurenic acids in post-partum women diagnosed with peripartum onset depression (PPD) and healthy controls (n = 165). We assessed depression severity using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and suicidality using the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale. We found that increased plasma IL-6 and IL-8 and reductions of serotonin, IL-2 and quinolinic acid were associated with the severity of depressive symptoms and increased the risk for PPD. Moreover, women with lower serotonin levels were at an increased risk for suicidal behavior, even when adjusting for depression severity, psychosocial factors, age BMI, and medication. Our results indicate that severe depression in the post-partum involves dysregulation of the immune response and the kynurenine pathway, with a concomitant reduction in serotonin levels. We propose that inflammatory cytokines and the kynurenine pathway are potential treatment targets in PPD, opening up the possibility of novel therapeutic strategies targeting the peripartum.
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