CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Researchers at the University of Virginia Health System may have found a biological cause for postpartum depression.

The researchers found certain changes in mothers who suffer from the condition, which may lead to treatments and ways to identify mothers who are at risk of postpartum depression even before their babies are born.

According to a release, postpartum depression affects up to 20 percent of new moms, and it can have major consequences for both mother and child.

About 20 percent of maternal deaths after childbirth are from suicide, and postpartum depression can cause new mothers to be more anxious and irritable, suffer from self-doubt, and have difficulty bonding with their child.

Additionally, postpartum depression interferes with a person’s ability to think, sleep and eat.

For an infant whose mother is dealing with postpartum depression, the child may develop cognitive, emotional or social development issues.

The release says risk factors for postpartum depression may include the mother’s age at childbirth, diabetes, or a history of mental health issues.

However, this new discovery suggests a biological contributor to the condition: an impairment of the body’s ability to clean up old genetic material and other cellular debris.

“The finding that cells aren’t cleaning out old proteins and cellular debris, called autophagy, occurs before women develop depression symptoms, indicating that it could be part of the disease process,” said Jennifer L. Payne, MD, the director of the Reproductive Psychiatry Research Program at the UVA School of Medicine. “There are several medications that promote autophagy in cells, so this finding might open the door to new treatments and to identification of women at risk of postpartum depression before they become ill.” 

The researchers wanted to see if a recently discovered form of communication among cells might contribute to postpartum depression.

This type of communication, called extracellular RNA communication, is heightened during pregnancy.

The release says is it also critical to the implantation of the fertilized embryo and in the body’s later inflammatory response.

The researchers used blood plasma samples from 14 participants during and after pregnancy, finding that this form of communication in immune cells was altered significantly in women who suffered from postpartum depression.

They also determined that this change limited the body’s ability to perform cellular cleanup, leading to the suggestion of a biological cause for postpartum depression.

“Deficits in autophagy are thought to cause toxicity that may lead to the changes in the brain and body associated with depression,” Payne said. “We have never fully understood the biological basis for postpartum depression, and this finding gets us closer to an understanding.”

With this discovery, researchers may be able to develop targeted treatments for postpartum depression.

They may also be able to create a blood test that can identify women at risk of the condition, which could help doctors intervene earlier and make life better for new mothers.

These findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature Molecular Psychiatry.