Sharon Dekel, PhD

Dekel Lab

The Dekel Laboratory studies women’s mental health following the landmark event of childbirth, including traumatic childbirth, and the mechanisms responsible for postpartum adjustment.

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.

Image Credit: Karen Tokatly

Group Members

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 1,300 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 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 is editing 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

Dr. Zohar received her PhD in neuroscience from Tel-Aviv University, where she examined structural and functional brain alterations in survivors of sexual assault in adulthood. Her current project addresses the neural underpinnings of childbirth-related post-traumatic stress disorder and maternal bonding difficulties in postpartum women. She also assesses the associations of brain alterations with mother and infant behavioral measures, as well as with maternal obstetric and psychosocial risk factors. Her goal is to elucidate the interplay between psychological, biological and cultural/psychosocial factors implicated in human psychological adaptation following trauma exposure.


Michelle Mesa

Michelle is a senior at Boston University studying neuroscience who began her career at Mass General as an intern during college. Michelle is coordinating the oxytocin-based treatment study. Her favorite part of working at Mass General is what she has learned about women’s health, the inspiration she gets from her peers and working with her study subjects. Michelle plans to one day attend medical school and plans to dedicate her career to improving women’s health throughout the world.


Kimberly Rosales

Kim is a senior at Boston University, majoring in Psychological and Brain Sciences. She coordinates the Postpartum Psychological Outcomes Study and manages a team of research assistants. She hopes to go to graduate school to become a Certified Professional Midwife and continue to improve care within the field of Maternal and Fetal Medicine. In her free time she loves to snuggle up on the couch with her dog and watch movies.


Gus Mayopoulos, BA

Gus is a graduate of Harvard University and he currently coordinates the traumatic childbirth stress study in the Dekel Lab. He enjoys being part of an active clinical research team, performing physiological and psychometric assessments and working directly with study subjects. Gus hopes to go to graduate school to learn more about the roles that emerging technologies and technology habits can play in the development of mental health challenges, especially for young people and how clinicians can effectively respond.


Gabriella Dishy, BS

Gabriella is graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received her BS in Psychology from Northeastern University. Gabriella contributed to the collection of pilot data for the oxytocin study and took a lead role in gathering survey data from hundreds of postpartum women. Currently, she manages the electronic data applications for various studies in the lab. Gabriella is interested in the impact of prior trauma on coping with subsequent stressors and in improving mental healthcare for women and minorities.


Siyu Liu

Siyu currently studies psychology at Boston University and recruits and screens study candidates for the lab’s oxytocin treatment study. She also manages subject medical records. She hopes to apply the skills she is gaining in the lab on her way to becoming a clinical therapist in the future.


Ryan Sunda

Ryan studies Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard College and reviews medical records for the lab's postpartum psychological outcomes project. After graduation, he plans on pursuing a career in medicine focusing on pediatrics.


Pamela O’Leary

Pamela studies psychology at Boston University and recruits and assesses women in oxytocin-treamtent project. In the future, she hopes to apply what she has learned at Mass General in a PsyD Clinical Psychology Program.


Arielle Kaim

Arielle studies Biology with a concentration in Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, and Genetics as well as Medical Anthropology at Boston University. She previously helped recruit subjects for the ongoing projects at Dekel Lab’s, however she is currently assisting in a new project which aims to characterize the functional and structural brain alterations associated with CB-PTSD. In the future, she hopes to apply what she has learned at Mass General in pediatric medicine in the context of humanitarian aid and disaster relief.


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

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. Our findings suggest that the objective and subjective childbirth experience predicts a woman’s risk of developing childbirth-related PTSD, alongside her pre-partum characteristics. Furthermore, 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 results thus show that childbirth-related PTSD is not limited to incomplete pregnancy and preterm deliveries.


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 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.

Group photo of lab out to dinner

News and Events

Recent Lab Achievements:

  • 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:

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

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

2018:

Q&A with Dr. Sharon Dekel: Understanding Postpartum PTSD, Advances in Motion
Nearly Dying In Childbirth: Why Preventable Complications Are Growing In U.S., NPR
Mass General Awards and Honors, Mass General News

2017:

Severe Complications for Women During Childbirth are Skyrocketing - And Could Often be Prevented, ProPublica
105 Questions That Could Predict PTSD Risk, Science Magazine
PTSD Affects 1 in 11 New Moms… So Why Don’t We Hear More About It? NBC Today

2016:

The Mothers Who Can’t Escape the Trauma of Childbirth, The Atlantic

2015:

Grants Help Level the Playing Field for Young Moms in Science, Reuters

2014:

Holistic Approach to POW Trauma, Science Daily

2013:

Study Shows Children of Holocaust Survivors React Differently to Trauma, Tel Aviv University
Surviving – Then Thriving, Science Daily
Benefits of Suffering: Is There a Silver Lining to Traumatic Experiences? Medical Daily

 

Publications

View all publications of the Dekel Lab

Selected Publications (Most recent first)

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. J Psychiatr Res. 2019. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires. 2019.03.016

Is Childbirth-induced PTSD Associated with Low Maternal Attachment? Dekel S, Thiel F, Dishy G, Ashenfarb A. Arch Womens Ment Health. 2019; 22: 119-122. doi: 10.1007/s00737-018-0853-y

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

Is childbirth-induced PTSD associated with low maternal attachment? Dekel S, Thiel F, Dishy G, Ashenfarb AL. Archives of Women's Mental Health. 2018; PMID: 29786116

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. PMCID: PMC5435820

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. PMCID: PMC5387093

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

Contact

Principal Investigator:

Sharon Dekel, PhD

Address:
120 2nd Avenue, Charlestown, MA 02129
Building 120

Email: sdekel@mgh.harvard.edu
Phone: 617-726-1352

For questions regarding study participation, please e-mail our team at MothersStudy@partners.org

Follow us on Twitter at @Dr_Dekel

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