1 in 8 women in the United States. What will it mean for easing symptoms such as hopelessness, crankiness, and lack of interest in bonding with the baby or, in the case of multiples, babies – and in some cases, thoughts of death or suicide?
A fast-acting option
“We don’t have many oral medications that are fast-acting antidepressants, so this is incredibly exciting,” said Sarah Oreck, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Los Angeles who specializes in reproductive psychiatry. The rapid response is likely because the medication targets the hormonal mechanism underlying postpartum depression, she added.
Zuranolone (Zurzuvae, Biogen/Sage) is different from most other antidepressants – it is designed to be taken for a shorter period. Also, Because zuranolone is a pill, it is more convenient to take than the other FDA-approved treatment, the IV infusion brexanolone (Zulresso, Sage).
“It’s obviously game changing to have something in pill form. The infusion has to be done at an infusion center to monitor people for any complications,” said Kimberly Yonkers, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in women’s health, a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and the Katz Family Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School/UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
Women may experience improvement in postpartum depression in as soon as 3 days after starting the medication. In contrast, “typical antidepressants can take up to 2 weeks before patients notice a difference and 4 to 8 weeks to see a full response. A fast-acting pill that can be taken orally could be an ideal option for the 15% to 20% of women who experience postpartum depression,” said Priya Gopalan, MD, a psychiatrist with UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh.
The medical community, and reproductive psychiatrists in particular, has always suspected differences in the biological underpinnings of postpartum depression and major depressive disorder, Dr. Oreck said. “We know that postpartum depression looks different from major depressive disorder and that hormonal shifts during pregnancy and postpartum are a huge risk factor for postpartum depression,” she said.
Although selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are helpful and currently the standard of care for treating moderate to severe postpartum depression in combination with therapy, Dr. Oreck added, early studies suggest that zuranolone may work faster and potentially be more effective than SSRIs in treating the condition.
Zuranolone is a version of a naturally occurring hormone called allopregnanolone, a metabolite of progesterone. Concentrations of allopregnanolone rise dramatically during pregnancy and then drop precipitously after childbirth. Zuranolone works through modulating GABA-A, a neurotransmitter implicated in the development of depression.
“It is encouraging that postpartum individuals may now have more options to manage a debilitating condition that affects them and their families,” said Christopher Zahn, MD, interim CEO and chief of clinical practice and health equity and quality for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
ACOG recommends women be screened for depression at least three times – during early pregnancy, later in pregnancy, and again after delivery. A decision to start this or any other medicine should be individualized and based on shared decision-making between a patient and doctor, Dr. Zahn added.
The cost of zuranolone is not yet known. Dr. Yonkers said cost of the infusion can serve as a cautionary tale for the manufacturer. Some reports put the infusion cost at $34,000. “Cost is going to be an important component to this. The previous intervention was priced so high that it was not affordable to many people and it was difficult to access.”