This blogpost was written based on a Mom and Mind podcast episode hosted by PSI board member Katayune Kaeni and Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody.
Technology has transformed the way we live. We no longer rely on a haphazardly folded atlas from the backseat of our vehicle when we need to navigate to the new restaurant downtown and instead use Google maps. We no longer listen to music on cassette tapes or CDs and instead use Spotify. In the same vein, technology is revolutionizing the way we conduct research in the medical field. More specifically, technology is capable of expediting the study of and treatment for issues related to mental health. It can be a particularly useful tool in gathering information about perinatal mood disorders such as postpartum depression (PPD).
This is the topic at hand in a recent episode of Mom & Mind where host Dr. Katayune Kaeni, known as Dr. Kat to her attentive listeners, had the privilege of speaking with guest Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody on the innovative role technology has played for her and her team in collecting and analyzing data on PPD. Dr. Meltzer-Brody is an M.D. with an impressive background as chair of the UNC Department of Psychiatry, Director of the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, the former president of the Marce Perinatal Depression Research Society of North America, and is an internationally recognized reproductive psychiatrist and clinician scientist. Her vast experiences and diverse skillset make her the perfect candidate for tackling the aptly named Mom Genes for PPD, an app-based research project on genetics and PPD.
Dr. Meltzer-Brody’s enthusiasm for Mom Genes is evident as she describes first the necessity of such a project and then elaborates on its beginning and evolution. “Postpartum depression is one of the most common complications of childbirth and estimates of the prevalence range from 10% to 15%,” she states. The condition has the potential to be particularly debilitating and Dr. Meltzer-Brody describes symptoms such as tearfulness, anxiety, sleep disruptions, and general lack of enjoyment as indicative that someone may need to reach out and get help. She is also quick to note that because the onset of PPD is associated with childbirth, an already physically and emotionally vulnerable time for women, there is an added sense of urgency in addressing the condition, increasing awareness of it, and learning more about it. Projects like Mom Genes are playing a vital role in accomplishing exactly that
Mom Genes started as a straightforward smartphone application, Dr. Meltzer-Brody says. The app was designed to assemble data on the genetic signature that causes some women to have PPD while others do not, assess ways that researchers can better understand the biology behind the genetic component of PPD, and consequently improve methods of treatment.
The study’s accessibility is largely a result of the advances made in cell phone technology and that tech appears to be a significant factor in its success. “This is an opportunity to reach moms wherever they are across the United States,” Dr. Meltzer-Brody explains.
Using a smartphone app to collect data also enables researchers to obtain information from a large number of participants without being limited to one location. While Dr. Meltzer-Brody acknowledges that research sometimes needs to be slow and methodical in order to ensure accuracy, absent the restriction of geographical barriers, the team has been able to accelerate the research process without compromising the results of their scientific analysis.
Technology has simultaneously increased the reach of the study and stream-lined the research process for the team’s scientists, but beyond that, it has also simplified things for study participants. Women can join the project from the comfort of their own homes by downloading the free smartphone app called Mom Genes Fight PPD. The app is available in English and Spanish and operates on both Android and IOS platforms. After completing a preliminary screening, any woman who scores above a certain threshold is then sent a kit that contains a tube in which she deposits a sample of her saliva. This is sent to the NIH biorepository, where identifying information is removed and the submissions is assigned an ID number to ensure confidentiality. The DNA contained in these samples is then studied with the hope that it may lead to a way of recognizing who is most at risk for PPD and being able to intervene early on and provide treatment based on each individual’s specific needs.
What began in 2016 as a small, app-based survey on genetics and its potential link to perinatal mood disorders has grown into a much larger endeavor. According to Dr. Meltzer-Brody, thousands of women across the United States have participated and to date, there is no other study on PPD of equivalent scale. This is crucial to the success of the study as well, as large sample sizes are vital in determining if something is statistically significant, particularly when studying genetics.
The technology behind Mom Genes has accomplished more than merely round up data from study participants. The project has a compelling social media presence and has become a place that provides a meaningful sense of community where women can connect, share their own stories and experiences, and come alongside others impacted by PPD. This is a prospect that excites Dr. Meltzer-Brody. She recently answered questions via social media for a mom who had recently had a baby and that isn’t the only way women are being educated.
“For some women, they may have had symptoms 20 years ago and didn’t know what it was,” she notes. However, regardless of whether a woman is a new mom or has grown children, Mom Genes offers feedback and connects women with resources, both as an app and an online community.
Mom Genes is continuing to expand and thrive. While thousands of women have already contributed to the ongoing study, there is always room for more. All moms are encouraged to download the Mom Gene Fight PPD app and fill out the preliminary questionnaire, even if they haven’t given birth recently or have co-occurring conditions (such as anxiety disorders).
The technology behind Mom Genes may be shifting the way research is conducted in the medical field, but Dr. Meltzer-Brody also recognizes and affirms the substantial role moms have played throughout the study and has a special word for those who have been a part of their efforts and have both helped them understand what causes PPD and how intervention can be improved in the future. “We’re so appreciative of all the moms that have participated to date and those that will in the future,” she declares, “you’re really part of something that we believe is important.”
Find out more about the Moms Genes project here: https://www.momgenesfightppd.org/
Amy Stuart describes herself as both an avid writer and as someone with a desire to be a passionate advocate for those in need, particularly for those impacted by mental illness. She completed her B.S. in Justice Studies at Arizona State University, where she also studied English and history, tutored writing, and was a columnist with The State Press. She later worked with at-risk students and young adults. Currently, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, writing, working out, baking, and volunteering in her community.