Explore This Research Lab

Overview

Ensuring the well-being of women from the very early postpartum period is important for mother and child health. Research in the Dekel lab at Massachusetts General Hospital is focused on identifying the factors that are implicated in optimal adaptation as well as psychopathology of mothers following childbirth. To this end, we combine psychological, physiological and neuroimaging tools to prospectively study women from pregnancy across childbirth. Ultimately our goal is to develop novel tools for early detection of mothers at risk for postpartum mental disorders and preventive treatments that are effective and safe.

Although childbirth is usually considered a uniformly happy event, some women may experience a traumatic childbirth. Some will go on to develop a postpartum posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition we know very little about. We study the psychological and biological mechanisms underlying the various mental health trajectories in the wake of a traumatic delivery and what allows some women to be resilient and even grow psychologically. We are also interested in learning the ways in which distress in the mother may influence child development.



Clinical Research

Current Lab Studies

Preventing Postpartum Depression with Oxytocin

Our NIH funded clinical trial introduces a novel therapeutic approach with the use of oxytocin administered to mothers at risk immediately following childbirth. We are testing whether oxytocin, an anxiolytic and pro-social hormone, can reduce postpartum depression and anxiety and boost mother-infant bonding as well as breastfeeding to the ultimate benefit of the child’s health. Boosting mother-infant bonding at a critical stage for infant development can modify the long-term health trajectory of the child. This study is done in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of Mass General researchers and the Mass General Obstetrics Program. Women who plan to deliver at Mass General are being recruited for this study. Clinical Trial

Childbirth-induced Postpartum Psychological Outcomes

Identifying at risk women for postpartum mental health disorders is crucial for implementing preventive treatment tailored to different symptoms. In this large-scale prospective, longitudinal study, we are examining women’s mental health trajectories from pregnancy through childbirth into the early postpartum period. We study the experience of childbirth and subsequent heterogeneous psychological responses to better capture the dynamic nature of postpartum coping over time. We assess negative as well as positive mental health outcomes induced by the childbirth experience and the factors predicting these responses. Women who plan to deliver at Mass General are recruited for this study, which is conducted in collaboration with Mass General Obstetrics Program. To learn more, contact our team at MothersStudy@partners.org.

Traumatic Childbirth: A Biological Approach to Study Childbirth-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

The biological correlates of childbirth-related PTSD are unknown. Understanding biological mechanisms underlying this condition is important to further distinguish among the various postpartum mental health conditions to inform novel treatments. To this end, we are examining the memory of childbirth and associated physiological correlates in women who had highly stressful childbirth. This study is open for enrollment. Clinical Trial

International Study of Childbirth Characteristics and Subsequent PTSD

We recently completed a study of nearly 700 postpartum women from around the globe, targeting posttraumatic stress symptoms following childbirth. We have found that as much as 12% of women are expected to experience PTSD symptoms at a clinical level after giving birth to a healthy baby at term. Our findings show that the objective and subjective childbirth experience predicts a woman’s risk for suffering from childbirth-related PTSD, alongside her pre-partum characteristics. Unscheduled Cesarean can increase a women’s risk for probable PTSD by as much as 3 times. Furthermore, having symptoms of PTSD can interfere with the mother’s ability to bonding with her baby

Mother-Infant Bonding Following Premature Delivery

This study examines acute stress reactions in mothers following preterm delivery and admission of newborn to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Our focus is on exploring the impact of maternal posttraumatic stress reaction on bonding with a preemie. This study is done in collaboration with Mass General Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Women whose babies are admitted to Mass General NICU are recruited.

Neural Correlates of Childbirth-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (CB-PTSD)

Although numerous studies have investigated brain function and structure in PTSD, research on the underlying neural mechanisms of CB-PTSD has been completely lacking. Gaining insights into CB-PTSD’s neural aberrations is a critical step in efforts to enhance our understanding of this condition, identify disease markers, and develop new targets for treatment. Here, we use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess functional and structural alterations in women who experienced a highly stressful childbirth, with and without CB-PTSD. This study is open for enrollment.

Research Team

Sharon Dekel, PhD | Principal Investigator

Dr. Sharon Dekel is an assistant professor of Psychology of Harvard Medical School. She earned a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and completed her clinical internship training at Columbia Medical Center followed by a research postdoctoral fellowship in a lead international trauma lab. Dr. Dekel is also a licensed clinical psychologist.

Dr. Dekel has been studying biological and psychological factors associated with ways of coping with stressful events. Her work on the positive outlook of traumatic stress is considered pioneering in the field. Rather than viewing trauma outcomes as exclusively negative, her studies have increased our understanding of the human capacity to thrive in the wake of trauma (see Dekel’s publication record).

Since joining Massachusetts General Hospital in 2013, Dr. Dekel has expanded her research with the investigation of childbirth as a potentially traumatic event. This represents a new frontier in trauma studies. She developed a multidisciplinary research model involving both the Mass General Psychiatric and OB/GYN Departments that has allowed her to study over 1,500 postpartum women. Dr. Dekel is defining the overlooked condition of childbirth-related post-traumatic stress disorder and working to better understand the transmission of the disorder’s effects to the offspring. By studying childbirth as a model of traumatic stress, she hopes to translate the knowledge gained to improve clinical care of trauma-exposed individuals.

Dr. Dekel is a two time recipient of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation’s Young Investigator Award, Mass General’s Claflin Distinguished Scholar Award for Women in Science, the MGH’s Executive Committee On Research ISF funding and a recent recipient of Postpartum Support International Susan A. Hickman Memorial Research Award for excellence in scientific work on postpartum mental health. Her research is funded by the NIH.

Dr. Dekel is on the Editorial Board of PloS ONE, Frontiers in Psychology, where she edited a special volume on childbirth-PTSD, and Journal of Psychological Trauma, the American Psychological Association’s lead traumatic stress journal.


Our Team

Zohar Berman, PhD | Postdoctoral Research Fellow






Sabrina Chan

Sabrina Chan






Babatunde Akinwunmi

Babatunde Akinwunmi, MD, FWACS, FMCOG, MSc (Epid&Biostat), MMsc-CI






Himani Seth

Himani Seth






Gabriella Dishy, BS

Gabriella Dishy, BS






Meghan Tokala

Meghan Tokala






Brenna McCarthy

Brenna McCarthy






Giorgio Zaghen Zambianco

Giorgio Zaghen Zambianco





Collaborators

 

  • Roger Pitman, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  • Scott Orr, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  • Anjali Kaimal, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  • Elizabeth Lawson, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  • Linda Mayes, MD, Yale University
  • Lauren Hanley, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  • Sara Bates, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  • Ahmed Tawakol, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School
  • George Bonanno, PhD, Columbia University
  • Peter Tsvetkov, PhD, Broad Institute
  • Lisa Shin, PhD, Tufts University
  • Zahava Solomon, PhD, Tel Aviv University, Israel
  • Ruth Feldman, PhD, Interdisciplinary Center, Israel
  • Tsachi Ein Dor, PhD, Interdisciplinary Center, Israel
  • Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Mount Sinai School of Medicine
  • Jeffery Rosen, PhD, University of Delware

Research Positions

We have ongoing research opportunities in our lab. To learn about postdoctoral and research fellowship positions, please contact Dr. Sharon Dekel at sdekel@mgh.harvard.edu

Research Volunteers: We are seeking student volunteers to assist with the operation of ongoing clinical research studies in our lab. Primarily responsibilities will involve screening candidates and recruiting subjects, data entry, and assisting with conducting the biological and psychological assessments of subjects as needed. Ideal candidates will be highly motivated with the strong interpersonal skills necessary to interact with patients and succeed in a dynamic work environment. If you are interested, please send your cover letter and resume to Dr. Zohar Berman at zberman@mgh.harvard.edu.

News and Achievements

Lab Achievements:
  • Congratulations to Dr. Dekel for receiving Mass General's Executive Committee On Research Award, 2019 Deliberative Interim Support Funding
  • Congratulations to Dr. Dekel for receiving the 2019 CFD Award

  • Congratulations to Dr. Dekel on being named the 2018 Recipient of the Susan A. Hickman Memorial Research Award by Postpartum Support International!
  • Congratulations to Dr. Berman for receiving Harvard’s 2018 Mind Brain Behavior Young Investigator Award!

Highlighted mentions in news articles:

2019:

"It's a Battle Scar": The Emotional Toll of C-Sections No-one Talks About on Harper's Bazaar

What Is Postpartum PTSD? on Goop

Depression Screening Needed in Peripartum Period to Detect Delayed Onset and Fluctuating Symptoms on Mass General Advances in Motion

Why #Metoo Matters in the Delivery Room on The Establishment

Featured interview with Dr. Dekel on the Mass General Research Institute Blog

Dr. Dekel Interviewed As Featured Member of Postpartum Support InternationalPostpartum Support International

2018:
2017:
2016:

Publications

View all publications of the Dekel Lab

Selected Publications (Most recent first)

Beyond postpartum depression: Posttraumatic stress-depressive response following childbirth. Dekel S, Ein-Dor T, Dishy G, Mayopoulos P. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. 2019. 10.1007/s00737-019-01006-x

Peritraumatic dissociation in childbirth-evoked posttraumatic stress and postpartum mental health
. Thiel F, Dekel S. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. 2019 May 21. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 31115689.

Delivery mode is associated with maternal mental health following childbirth. Dekel S, Ein-Dor T, Berman Z, Barsoumian I, Agarwal S, Pitman RK. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. 2019 Apr 30. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 31041603.

Dynamic course of peripartum depression across pregnancy and childbirth. Dekel S, Ein-Dor T, Ruohomäki, A, Lampi J, Voutilainen S, Tuomainen TP, Heinonen S, Kumpulainen K, Pekkanen J, Keski-Nisula L, Pasanen M, Lehto SM. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2019; 113:72-78. PMID: 30921631.

Is childbirth-induced PTSD associated with low maternal attachment? Dekel S, Thiel F, Dishy G, Ashenfarb A. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. 2019; 22: 119-122. PMID: 29786116.

Examining symptom clusters of childbirth-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Thiel F, Ein-Dor T, Dishy G, King A, Dekel S. The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders. 2018; 20(5). PMID: 30277674.

Differences in cortisol response to trauma activation in individuals with and without comorbid PTSD and depression. Dekel S, Ein-Dor T, Rosen JB, Bonanno GA. Frontiers in Psychology. 2017; 8:797. PMID: 28572779. 

Childbirth induced posttraumatic stress syndrome: A systematic review of prevalence and risk factors. Dekel S, Stuebe C, Dishy G. Frontiers in Psychology. 2017; 8:560. PMID: 28443054.

Peripartum depression, traditional culture, and Israeli society. Dekel S, Stanger V, Georgakopoulos ER, Stuebe CM, Dishy GA. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 2016; 72(8):784-94. PMID: 27487164.

PTSD symptoms lead to modification in the memory of the trauma: a prospective study of former prisoners of war. Dekel S, Solomon Z, Ein-Dor T. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2016; 77(3):e290-6. PMID: 26796992.

Posttraumatic stress disorder and depressive symptoms: joined or independent sequelae of trauma? Dekel S, Solomon Z, Horesh D, Ein-Dor T. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2014; 54:64-9. PMID: 24703578.

Cortisol and PTSD symptoms among male and female high-exposure 9/11 survivors. Dekel S, Ein-Dor T, Gordon KM, Rosen JB, Bonanno GA. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2013; 26(5):621-5. PMID: 24030869.

Changes in trauma memory and patterns of posttraumatic stress. Dekel S, Bonanno G. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy. 2013; 5(1):26-34.

Secondary salutogenic effects in veterans whose parents were Holocaust survivors? Dekel S, Solomon Z, Rozenstreich E. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2013; 47(2):266-71. PMID: 23168139.

Self-enhancement among high-exposure survivors of the September 11th terrorist attack: resilience or social maladjustment? Bonanno GA, Rennicke C, Dekel S. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2005; 88(6):984-98. PMID:15982117.