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Student Spotlight: Postpartum Depression Research with Eileen Yu

Ellie McCluey | January 26, 2023

For those who can get pregnant, pregnancy is associated with major hormone fluctuations, physical changes, and psychological effects. However, the symptoms of pregnancy can often endure long after a baby has been born. Postpartum Depression is a major depressive disorder that affects at least 1 in 10 new mothers (Depression Among Women | CDC, 2022). The disorder is marked by prolonged symptoms of anxiety, mood swings, and sadness that often begin during the first few weeks of giving birth (Postpartum Depression – Symptoms and Causes, n.d.). If left untreated, PPD can affect women from a few months to a year after giving birth. Currently, as many as half of all PPD cases go untreated due to lack of screening for PPD as well as stigmatization around new mothers, leaving many women to suffer in silence alone (Mughal et al., 2022)

Eileen Yu, a senior at Vanderbilt, is currently a member of the Mood, Emotion, and Development Lab under Dr. Autumn Kujawa, an Assistant Professor in Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. When asked what influenced her to study depressive disorders, Eileen stated that, 

“My parents grew up in China and mental health isn’t really [prioritized] there […] Mental illnesses like depression have different levels of stigma associated with them in different cultures [despite the fact] that they’re caused by factors out of a patient’s control. [For example] no one ever blames someone for getting the flu […] but it’s not the same when someone [is diagnosed] with depression. I thought [that] could be because we don’t know for sure what exactly causes depression and it varies from person to person. So, I was interested in studying risk factors for depression and that was what I prioritized when I was looking for research projects in labs.” 

Yu’s study focuses on identifying emotional risk factors for depression in pregnant women. The study measures depressive symptoms and neuroreactivity to infant emotion cues during the second trimester, third trimester, and four weeks after childbirth. The subjects of the study were drawn from VUMC and local obstetric clinics in Nashville. The participants were screened to generate a sample composed of at least 50 percent individuals with a higher risk of depression.

The infant stimuli used in the study include both auditory, such as infant crying noises, and visual, such as infant faces that are made to elicit a specific reaction (Neural Reactivity to Infant Emotion Cues Pregnancy, Eileen Yu). The neural reactivity of the women is measured using an EEG, a test that measures electrical activity in the brain using small metal electrodes attached to the scalp. The project uses EEG results to derive a Late Positive Potential (LPP) that can be used to determine how reactive the brain is to emotional cues from infants. The LPP provides a quantitative measure of neural reactivity that can ideally be used to predict postpartum depression risk. The study predicted to find lower reactivity in women at high risk for PPD than women with less risk. Generally, when individuals do not express symptoms of depression, their response to emotional stimuli is much more reactive in comparison to individuals who do exhibit depressive symptoms. 

The figure above represents the images displayed to the subjects of this study. Participants were shown the image of distressed infant faces (left image) for a period of 3 seconds. Then, subjects experienced a 4-second pause (middle image) in which one of two conditions, white noise or infant crying noises, were played. The image on the far right was used as a control treatment to generate a baseline response for comparison to the infant stimuli (Neural Reactivity to Infant Emotion Cues Pregnancy, Eileen Yu).

The lab also measures depressive symptoms across pregnant women throughout the study using an Inventory of Depression and Anxiety Symptoms test. The test measures for specific symptoms present in cases of depression to generate an overall score that corresponds to mild, moderate, or severe depression. The results from the depression analysis and the LPP are then used to correlate the results and hopefully find a trajectory between the two. The overarching goal of this study is to be able to use the reactions of pregnant women to infant stimuli to predict PPD risk. This study could benefit millions of pregnant women every year by providing prevention treatment and catching PPD in the early stages to improve the quality of life of women after pregnancy.  

Works Cited

Depression Among Women | CDC. (2022, May 23).

Mughal, S., Azhar, Y., & Siddiqui, W. (2022). Postpartum Depression. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. depression—Symptoms and causes. (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from