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Researcher Finds Hormones Ease Postpartum Illness

Times Staff Writer

Hailing a remarkable opportunity for treating extreme and potentially violent cases of the “baby blues,” a leading British researcher unveiled a new study here this week, lending further credibility to a mysterious postpartum illness that is still largely unexplored in this country.

The study by Dr. Katharina Dalton, a gynecologist and pioneering pregnancy specialist, found that pregnancy hormone treatments can produce a dramatic rate of recovery in mothers suffering from the extreme irritability, anxiety and occasional sparks of violence that are associated with postpartum depression.

Dalton, in her two-year study of more than 200 women who suffered postpartum depression, reported a recovery rate of 93% in women given regular injections of the hormone progesterone after labor.

By contrast, Dalton said, just 33% of the women in the study group who were not given progesterone recovered from depression. The remaining two-thirds of this untreated group continued to complain that they were easily agitated, prone to lose control and suffered personality changes.

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The study, previewed by Dalton on Monday before medical professionals at the Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, comes at a time when postpartum depression is gaining increased recognition in the United States in both the hospital examining room and the courtroom.

Indeed, even as the first murder trial in the region to hinge on a defense of postpartum psychosis winds down in Superior Court in Santa Ana, attorneys for two other mothers accused in their babies’ deaths--one in San Diego, the other in San Bernardino--are preparing to offer the same defense, officials disclosed.

In San Diego, Lorenza Penguelly, 28, is accused of drowning her 5-month-old daughter in San Diego Bay two years ago. Attorneys for Penguelly, who has said she heard voices that made her kill the child, will argue at her upcoming trial that postpartum psychosis--a rare and extreme form of the “baby blues"--drove her insane.

In San Bernardino, a young woman will probably claim that defense as the cause of her recent suffocation of her child, according to a psychiatrist involved in the case. The psychiatrist refused to identify the woman, saying the type of defense that will be used is still under review.

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And in Santa Ana, Sheryl Lynn Massip, 23, of Anaheim is entering her third week of trial in Superior Court on murder charges. The first in Southern California to use the psychosis defense, Massip has testified that voices in her head made her run over her 6-week-old son twice with a car.

Still Somewhat in Question

Legal experts familiar with the cases said that, beyond the guilt or innocence of the three defendants, the juries will in essence have to try the validity of the postpartum illness itself, still somewhat in question in this country.

“There seems to be more of an awareness now of postpartum depression,” said Donald Lee Levine, one of two San Diego attorneys defending Penguelly, “and I think it’s being recognized as a legitimate defense. But we’ll still have to educate a jury about what it really is.”

Researchers said postpartum depression, hitting about one in 10 new mothers, has received greater attention and recognition in England, where a 50-year-old statute shields from charges of murder mothers who kill their infant children in those types of cases. Dalton, 72, credited with virtually single-handedly establishing premenstrual syndrome as a legitimate illness two generations ago, asserted that her latest study should silence the postpartum depression naysayers once and for all.

Some researchers in the field have disputed any hormonal roots to postpartum depression, saying the illness is based on psychology.

Dalton outlined the results of her study before gynecologists, psychiatrists and other medical professionals at a seminar at the Santa Ana medical center. Although her appearance in the county coincided with publicity surrounding the Massip trial, it was not related. It was the first of several U. S. stops she is to make.

Full Study to Be Published

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The full study is to be published next year in an English medical journal.

“If her statistics are correct, we can reduce dramatically the chances of these women having a recurrence of postpartum depression,” said Dr. Stanley L. Lubell, a Santa Ana gynecologist who helped organize the seminar. “Her work could be among the most significant to come along in a while in the field.”

Dalton herself said of the findings: “The good news is that, with the appreciation that postpartum depression is a hormonal illness, there has come the realization that postpartum depression can be prevented.”

About half of new mothers are thought to suffer from a mild and brief form of the “baby blues,” prone to moodiness and uncontrollable bouts of crying. About 10% of mothers suffer postpartum depression that can produce prolonged personality changes and more severe anxiety, Dalton said.

And, for about three in 1,000 mothers, she said, the illness can reach the rare point of a full-scale psychosis, involving hallucinations, thoughts of suicide and violence.


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