2022 2022: MommaConnect mobile app, under development by Dr. June Andrews Horowitz and team, receives MassVentures Acorn Award
MommaConnect mobile app, under development by Dr. June Andrews Horowitz and team, receives MassVentures Acorn Award

The mHealth app incorporates a holistic approach for mother-infant health by reducing the severity of post-partum depression symptoms and promoting healthy mother-infant interaction

Associate Dean, CNHS
College of Nursing & Health Sciences Associate Dean Dr. June Andrews Horowitz and her interdisciplinary team received a MassVentures Acorn grant to further develop and commercialize a mobile health app designed to improve symptoms of post-partum depression and improve mother-infant interaction.

The first year of infancy is critical to a child’s cognitive and socioemotional development, according to Dr. June Andrews Horowitz, associate dean of the College of Nursing & Health Sciences. Postpartum depression (PPD) has profound adverse effects on maternal-infant interaction and a child’s health, Horowitz et al. wrote in a research article about mother-baby interaction therapy in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing.

Horowitz and colleagues Dr. Bobbie Posmontier of Thomas Jefferson University, Dr. Pamela A. Geller of Drexel University; and Dr. Mona Elgohail, Tony Ma, and Katie Chang of Benten Technologies were awarded a MassVentures Acorn grant to develop “Momma Connect,” a mobile app that would facilitate treatment for post-partum depression and improve mother-infant interaction. Accessible, convenient, and cost-effective, the mHealth app is for clinicians and women with PPD and can bridge the current gap between PPD screening and the availability of customized perinatal mental health care.

“We expect that using the MommaConnect app will reduce the severity of PPD and improve the quality of mother-infant interaction, the critical mechanism that supports healthy infant development,” Horowitz wrote in the Acorn grant application.

Postpartum depression (PPD) is the most common childbirth complication, affecting 10-15% of women after they deliver their children. At-risk groups such as adolescents, women of color, and women with low resources and levels of support have a higher prevalence of PPD, Horowitz said.

The availability of perinatal mental health treatment is severely limited so many mothers with PPD do not get the help that they and their infants need to thrive, according to Horowitz. “Many mothers who experience PPD have limited access to treatment. MommaConnect could help to bridge the gap from identification of depression to getting care. It also will increase the connection of a mother to a therapist between sessions by providing resources, coaching, suggestions, and tips to reinforce the therapy sessions, and alerts the therapist if the mother answers a depression symptom scale to indicate having thoughts of self-harm.”

PPD adversely affects mother-child interaction and the child’s later development

The study of the infant-mother relationship and how that critical bond is affected by post-partum depression has been the research focus of Horowitz’s career. She writes that postpartum depression has profound adverse effects on the mother-infant relationship that persist beyond the maternal depressive symptoms. “While women with PPD may experience symptom improvement, standard treatment does not necessarily improve the quality of mother-infant interaction,” according to Horowitz, and may derail the relationship because mothers with PPD typically are less sensitive, responsive, and contingent in interacting with their infants than mothers without PPD.

PPD can impair infant and child development and can have lifelong adverse socioemotional, behavioral, and cognitive effects on infants that can be difficult to treat as the infant progresses into childhood, according to Horowitz. She states that extensive research has shown that more than 40% of infants of mothers with PPD often experience rates of conduct, anxiety, and substance use disorders during their childhood and adolescence. Moreover, children exposed to PPD, in comparison to children not exposed to PPD, show poorer school performance, lower social competency, reduced self-esteem, higher levels of behavior problems, more physical problems, and more disorganized attachment.

A unique aspect of MommaConnect is that it combines Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) with Mother-Baby Interaction Therapy. “Even when PPD treatment is provided, without focus on the maternal-infant relationship, it does not improve interaction quality and places the infant at risk,” according to Horowitz.

She noted that further studies found that infants of mothers with depression showed disordered and withdrawn interpersonal behaviors even in new interactions with emotionally sensitive adults without depression.

Grant will enable future development and testing of MommaConnect

The grant will enable Horowitz and the team to advance the development of the MommaConnect app prototype with expanded features, a technology partly developed at UMass Dartmouth by Horowitz in collaboration with the interdisciplinary team, and to obtain commercialization funding to bring the promising, evidence-based app to market. The technology will be piloted with eligible women, including 10 from the SouthCoast Health system in MA.

Benten Technologies, in collaboration with the academic research team and a consumer advisory board comprised of clinicians and women who have experienced PPD, will lead the technological innovation of MommaConnect.

MassVentures, the Commonwealth’s strategic venture capital team, awarded nearly $200,000 in seed funding to Massachusetts research institutions. Twelve grants of $16,250 were awarded to faculty researchers to assist them in testing the viability of their technologies and potentially bringing their research to market. Selected from a field of 37 applicants, the recipients were chosen for their project’s technical merit, commercial viability, project plan, and strength of team, according to Vinit Nijhawan, managing director of MassVentures.

“The strength of the selected projects and diversity of academic researchers demonstrates that Massachusetts leads the nation in translating basic research to the market,” Nijhawan said.

The Acorn Awards are funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and overseen by MassVentures.