Study Finds Link Between Autism and Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy

A recent study found an increased risk of developing an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children whose mothers took specific antidepressant medications.

The Swedish study stated that it found that “in utero exposure to both selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and nonselective monoamine reuptake inhibitors (tricyclic antidepressants) was associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders, particularly without intellectual disability,” according to The New York Times’ “Motherlode” column.

The team utilized the Swedish medical birth register, publicly funded screenings for ASDs, and national and regional health registers for its population-based, case-control study, said The Times. This is the second study in two years to associate antidepressant use during pregnancy with an increased likelihood of exposed children being diagnosed with autism.

“It really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise given that numerous animal studies have shown that exposure during development leads to changes in the brain and changes in behavior—often that mimic autism,” said Dr. Adam C. Urato, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Tufts University School of Medicine and chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, Massachusetts, The Times noted. “And why should it surprise us that medications that can change brain chemistry and function might alter the development of the brain and behavior?” Dr. Urato says that the risk of taking antidepressants during pregnancy outweigh what describes as limited benefits.

We previously wrote that a another study suggested that there is too much of a risk taking SSRIs—Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft—during pregnancy, including potential increased risks for miscarriage, pre-term births, neonatal health complications, and long-term neurobehavioral abnormalities. Neurobehavioral abnormalities include autism, which suggests that SSRIs should be used to treat depression with great care, as well as sufficient counseling to those women diagnosed with depression and who are trying to become pregnant, said researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Tufts Medical Center, and MetroWest Medical Center.

Prior to that, we wrote that a growing body of research linked SSRIs to birth defects and other issues when used by pregnant women, especially in the early months of pregnancy when many women don’t realize they are pregnant. One study published by researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found that taking an SSRI antidepressant during pregnancy was associated with a two-fold increased risk of neonatal pulmonary hypertension (PPHN). Another report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that babies exposed to SSRI antidepressants before birth exhibit reduced head growth at birth, and are more likely to be born prematurely.

Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University discovered that antidepressants that impact levels of serotonin in the brain can cause side effects related to any bodily process normally regulated by serotonin. Some possible side effects include birth defects in infants; sexual dysfunction, and problems with sperm development in adults; diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, bloating, and other digestive problems; and abnormal bleeding and stroke in the elderly.

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