Risk of Anxiety, Depression from PCOS May Start Before Birth

Pregnant woman meeting with a nurseNew research is examining the previously established link between women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and an increased risk for anxiety and depression, suggesting hormone imbalances before birth may play a significant role.

Women diagnosed with PCOS present with benign cysts on one or both of their ovaries and typically have elevated levels of testosterone and irregular periods. PCOS is estimated to affect more than 1 in 10 women of fertile age in the United States, and they often experience an increased risk for mental health issues.

Hormones Involved in PCOS-Related Mental Health Issues

The study was led by Dr. Elisabet Stener-Victorin, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She and her colleagues examined pregnant rats and their fetuses for the study. In order to mimic pregnant women with PCOS, the pregnant rats were given elevated levels of testosterone.

Researchers in the study looked for variations in fetal growth in the exposed rats’ offspring, as well as elevated levels of testosterone in the placenta of the pregnant rats. They observed that offspring exposed to testosterone in utero were more likely to display anxiety symptoms in adulthood.

The increased exposure was also shown to impact the brain’s amygdala, where emotion is partly regulated. Additionally, changes were detected in the regulation of serotonin and GABA—neurotransmitters that help control anxious behavior.

Women with PCOS have elevated levels of male hormones (androgens) in their blood stream, which their offspring are exposed to in utero, though the precise biological mechanism for this is unknown. The researchers report successfully preventing the development of anxious behavior in their offspring test subjects using two separate drugs to inhibit receptors for androgen and estrogen.

Understanding Effects of PCOS on Health

PCOS can impact women and their families for generations. Their daughters are more likely to develop the conditions themselves, while their sons have a higher risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, sometimes leading to a shortened life expectancy.

Among adolescent girls, according to a separate study, it is often difficult to determine if symptoms (such as irregular periods) are a result of PCOS. Adolescents are also more likely, the study observes, to be embarrassed in openly discussing symptoms with their doctors.

The researchers believe understanding the short-term and long-term impacts of PCOS could one day play a significant role in reducing mental health symptoms among those affected.

References:

  1. Hu, M., Richard, J., Maliqueo, M., Kokosar, M., Fornes, R., Benrick, A., . . . Stener-Victorin, E. (2015). Maternal testosterone exposure increases anxiety-like behavior and impacts the limbic system in the offspring. doi:10.1073/pnas.1507514112
  2. Swamy, A. (2011). Polycystic ovary syndrome in adolescents. Retrieved from https://www2.luriechildrens.org/ce/online/article.aspx?articleID=269

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  • Sandee

    Sandee

    November 25th, 2015 at 10:06 AM

    My daughter was recently diagnosed and we were made to feel like this would ever prevent her from being able to get pregnant? She is pretty devastated and I am wondering if we should seek a second opinion because we knew that there would be risks and maybe difficulty getting pregnant but this doctor made it sound like it would be next to impossible.

  • Britt

    Britt

    November 25th, 2015 at 2:11 PM

    So along with the weight gain and problems getting pregnant, the ever present problems with menstruation and everything associated with that, now I have depression and anxiety to look forward to as well? Great

  • Xena

    Xena

    November 26th, 2015 at 6:32 AM

    Do you think that the higher risk for mental health issues could stem form the fact that this is a very real physical issue that many women deal with and yet there seem to be so few medical professionals who understand the disease and can help women manage their illness?

  • ron

    ron

    November 27th, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    Are doctors screening for this and telling new moms the risks to their infants if they have PCOS?

  • Marcy

    Marcy

    November 28th, 2015 at 11:06 AM

    I am wondering just how prevalent this is in young women. I have never even heard of PCOS until reading this.

  • Kim

    Kim

    November 29th, 2015 at 7:20 AM

    very thoughtful and insightful article on something that impacts a whole lot of families, and not just the women in the families.

  • latha

    latha

    December 19th, 2018 at 4:01 AM

    Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is the most common ovulatory disorder among women with fertility problems and affects as many as 10 percent of all women in their childbearing years. Homeopathy medicines can cure PCOS permanently without any side effects. Homeopathy Treatment is a natural cure for any type of diseases.

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