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Depression is the most common form of mental health condition worldwide, affecting more than 322 million people. The disorder affects women disproportionately and is particularly common during pregnancy. Findings from a 2017 study demonstrated that serum levels of BDNF drop considerably during pregnancy, potentially increasing a woman’s risk for depression.

BDNF modulates synaptic plasticity and long-term potentiation – critical aspects of memory storage and brain function. Low BDNF levels are associated with increased risk for depression00181-1/fulltext?cc=y=).

The study involved 139 healthy pregnant women (77 Blacks and 62 whites) who were assessed three times during their pregnancies (once during each trimester) and again at four to 11 weeks postpartum. The authors of the study measured the participants' BDNF and cortisol levels via blood samples, gathered demographic data, and conducted psychosocial assessments. They reviewed the women’s medical records to determine their infants' birth weights.

The results of their assessments indicated that the women’s BDNF levels dropped considerably over the course of their pregnancies but rebounded during the postpartum period. In general, Black women had higher BDNF levels and lower cortisol levels than white women during pregnancy and postpartum. Lower levels of BDNF during the second and third trimesters were associated with higher risk for depression and lower birthweight babies, regardless of race.

Interestingly, these findings contradict those of an earlier study in rats and humans. However, the authors of the current study suggested that the conflicting findings may have been due to differences in assays used to measure BDNF.

Evidence indicates that exercise increases BDNF. Exercise is generally considered safe for pregnant women and may be a way to prevent some of the changes in mood that occur during pregnancy.

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