Research Exposes Bidirectional Link Between Autoimmune Diseases, Perinatal Depression

by Liz Neporent
January 12, 2024 at 10:48 AM UTC

New research reveals a bidirectional link between autoimmune diseases and perinatal depression, with multiple sclerosis showing the strongest association in both directions.

Clinical Relevance: Research reveals a bidirectional link between autoimmune diseases and perinatal depression, with MS showing the strongest association.

  • Mothers with autoimmune disorders are more likely to experience depression before and after childbirth.
  • Conversely, mothers with a history of perinatal depression have a higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases.
  • The study, based on data from more than  815,000 mothers, highlights a 30% increased likelihood in both directions.


Scientists have long suspected a connection between autoimmune diseases and perinatal depression – which has shown a troubling uptick in recent years. However new research suggests that the link is bidirectional.

A new study in the latest Molecular Psychiatry shows evidence that mothers with an autoimmune disorder are more likely to endure depression before and after childbirth. But where this study breaks new ground is the revelation that mothers who already have a history of perinatal depression run a higher risk of developing an autoimmune disease.

Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden’s foremost medical research facility, drafted the report.

Making Connections: A Methodology

Autoimmune diseases are characterized by the body’s immune system erroneously attacking health tissue. It presents most commonly as coeliac disease, autoimmune thyroiditis, and multiple sclerosis – to name a few.

The Swedish researchers used data culled from the country’s Medical Birth Register for every mother who’d had a child between 2001 and 2013. The search produced a list of about 815,000 mothers and 1.3 million pregnancies. From that group, a little more than 55,000 of them had received a depression diagnosis either during their pregnancy or within a year of the birth.

The scientists then juxtaposed those findings against the 41 autoimmune diseases identified in women with and without perinatal depression. They, of course, controlled for familial factors such as genetics and environment by looping in their sisters.

Strong Link to MS Emerges

What the researchers discovered was “a bidirectional association between perinatal depression and autoimmune thyroiditis, psoriasis, MS, ulcerative colitis, and coeliac disease. Overall, women with autoimmune disease were 30 percent more likely to suffer perinatal depression. Conversely, women with perinatal depression were 30 percent more likely to develop a subsequent autoimmune disease.”

“Our study suggests that there’s an immunological mechanism behind perinatal depression and that autoimmune diseases should be seen as a risk factor for this kind of depression,” the study’s first author Emma Bränn, researcher at the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Karolinska Institutet, wrote in announcing the findings.

Emma Bränn, researcher, Institute of Environmental Medicine.
Emma Bränn, researcher, Institute of Environmental Medicine. Photo: Private

Additionally, the study’s authors noticed that the strongest link emerged for MS, which was double in both directions. It also appeared the strongest in women without a previous psychiatric diagnosis.

“Depression during this sensitive period can have serious consequences for both the mother and the baby,” says Dr Bränn. “We hope that our results will help decision-makers to steer funding towards maternal healthcare so that more women can get help and support in time.”

Finally, the authors pointed out that since this study was strictly observational, they couldn’t draw any conclusions about causality. But they added that they plan to continue to explore the long-term effects of depression during – and after – pregnancy.

In addition to the Karolinska Institutet, Forte (the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare), the Swedish Research Councill, and the Icelandic Research Fund all funded the study.


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