On Wednesday, the American Journal of Psychiatry published a double-blind placebo-controlled study that analyzed a new drug to address postpartum depression (PPD). The study found that the pill, Zuranolone, was highly effective in relieving postpartum depression symptoms. It was fast-acting, with some patients showing improvements in mood within just three days. And it was also generally well-tolerated, with the most common reported side effects being drowsiness, dizziness, and sedation.
While many people who have just given birth suffer from mood swings and sadness in the days after childbirth, postpartum depression that lingers and grows worse (sometimes including thoughts of self-harm) in the months that follow can be a debilitating condition for people who experience it. The condition often goes unreported, yet even so, rates of postpartum depression are on the rise thanks to more people with pre-existing mental and physical health conditions, which are linked to higher instances of PPD, becoming pregnant. It’s risen to such unfortunate prominence that addressing maternal mental health is a part of the “Momnibus Bill” currently wending its way through Congress.
Zuranolone could play a role in the offensive. The FDA granted “priority review” to the drug in February after the maker, Sage Therapeutics and Biogen, officially filed it with the agency. That means the FDA recognizes the urgent need for the drug, and intends to review it within six months. The FDA announced it would rule on approval by August 5.
So what makes Zuranolone so promising? It provides the brain with a neuroactive steroid that stimulates the GABA receptors, which play a role in our response to anxiety and stress. Naturally, that steroid—which is derived from the hormone progesterone—rises during pregnancy, and then drops after childbirth. While the causes of PPD can be diffuse, changes in hormone levels are thought to play a role. So Zuranolone could help even things out.
What’s more, the ease of usage and timeline for Zuranolone are pretty notable. While a previous version of Zuranolone given intravenously was shown to be successful, it required people to get treatment in a hospital. This version is a pill taken daily at home for a course of 14 days. The study showed fairly rapid improvements in PPD: Some people experienced a difference at three days, while others saw scientifically significant improvements at days 15, 28, and 45 (when scores on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale were taken). Compare that to current treatments for depression, like SSRIs, which can take months to have an impact.
While this study is a step in the right direction, there is additional research going on that will ultimately play a role in the FDA’s decision. But for many struggling with PPD, help could be on the horizon.