The study, published last week in The American Journal of Psychiatry, followed 196 women with postpartum depression for 45 days. Half were randomized to receive zuranolone, while the other half got a placebo. After two weeks, 57 percent of those who took zuranolone experienced significant improvement in their depressive symptoms compared to 38 percent who got a placebo. By the end of the trial, nearly 62 percent of those who received zuranolone were still experiencing significant relief, compared to 54 percent of the placebo group.
Side effects included drowsiness, dizziness, headache, diarrhea, and nausea. The trial was funded by Massachusetts biotech companies Sage Therapeutics and Biogen. (The drug is also being considered by the FDA to treat major depressive disorder more generally.)
Zuranolone: The First Pill for Postpartum Depression
Zuranolone wouldn’t be the first drug approved specifically for postpartum depression, although it would be the first pill. In 2019, the FDA approved brexanolone, sold under the brand name Zulresso. Also manufactured by Sage Therapeutics, the drug costs $34,000. But it isn’t widely used, partly because it is given as an IV infusion over two and a half days, meaning patients must stay in the hospital. There’s also a risk that users can suddenly lose consciousness as it’s being administered, so it’s only available at certain qualified health care facilities. (Notably, no participants in trials of zuranolone have experienced loss of consciousness, which is crucial, since the ideal treatment would be one that could be taken at home.)
Showing Positive results
Zobeida Diaz, a perinatal psychiatrist at Women and Infants Hospital in Rhode Island, says the hospital has administered Zulresso to around 60 patients since it was approved and has seen very positive results. “But the problem is that having to admit someone for an IV infusion in the hospital creates a barrier for most women to get this treatment,” she says, adding that a pill would open up access to many more patients.
Compared to current antidepressants, zuranolone is also fast-acting. A class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, can be effective at treating postpartum depression, but they may take weeks or months to have an effect. These drugs work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Many patients taking traditional antidepressants do so for several years, and some might not benefit from the first drug they’re prescribed, so they may have to try others until they find one that works. “That can really delay appropriate treatment for these women,” Diaz says.
Relieving symptoms after just two doses
By contrast, zuranolone can begin relieving symptoms after just two doses. “One of the selling points of this compound is its rapid onset of action,” says Kimberly Yonkers, a professor and the chair of psychiatry at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Medical Center. “But we do not know how enduring the effect is.” Postpartum depression can last months—even a few years—after childbirth, and it’s unknown whether symptoms will come back after a two-week course of the drug.
And the pill will only be able to help people who get a diagnosis and prescription in the first place. Postpartum depression symptoms aren’t always easily recognized by new parents, family members, and doctors. There’s no test to predict who will develop it, but research by Payne has found that the risk is highest among first-time mothers, those younger than 25, and mothers of twins. Low-income mothers and women of color are also at higher risk of postpartum depression—and are less likely to receive care. “Right now, treatment is really reactive. We wait and see who gets sick and then we treat,” Payne says.
Judite Blanc, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, says a pill is not a magic solution, because it addresses only the chemical component of postpartum depression, not risk factors such as a lack of social support or poor partner relationships. “To me, the increase in postpartum depression in modern society is a reflection of all the pressures and social demands on women’s shoulders,” she says, adding that mothers need help with the demands of childcare. “We need a deep transformation of society.”