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Antidepressant-Autism Link

by Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH

Babies born to women who take certain antidepressant drugs during pregnancy may have an increased risk of developing autism spectrum disorders (ASD), according to a Kaiser Permanente study published online in the July 2011 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. The antidepressants that were associated with ASD are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Examples of SSRI antidepressant drugs include Paxil, Prozac, Lexapro, Celexa, Luvox, and Zoloft—and their generic equivalents.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is involved in the regulation of mood. Previous studies have indicated that abnormalities in serotonin levels and serotonin pathways may play a role in autism. It’s possible that when a woman takes SSRI antidepressants during pregnancy, the drugs may directly affect the brain of her unborn baby. Some experts believe that the combination of physiologic changes caused by maternal stress or depression and SSRI exposure during pregnancy may contribute to changes in the fetal brain that might lead to autism.

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the recent study of 1,805 children is one of the first to address the association between prenatal SSRI exposure and ASD risk.

After reviewing the collected data, the researchers reported a two-fold increased risk of ASD in children whose mothers were treated with SSRI anti-depressants during the year before their birth. The strongest effect was associated with SSRI anti-depressant treatment that occurred in the first trimester of pregnancy. After adjusting for a number of variables, the researchers found that mothers of children who were later diagnosed with ASD were more than three times as likely to have had a prescription for an anti-depressant drug in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Although the study results suggest a potential risk to unborn babies whose mothers are taking SSRI antidepressants during pregnancy, the potential risk to the baby must be balanced with the risk to a mother who is suffering from depression.

If you’re currently taking an antidepressant, you should talk to your doctor before discontinuing the medication, regardless of whether you’re pregnant or planning to conceive. The good news is that SSRI antidepressants aren’t the only treatment for depression. Work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that’s best for you. If you or a loved one is abusing medications, talk with your doctor.

The information on MommyMDGuides.com is not intended to replace the diagnosis, treatment, and services of a physician. Always consult your physician or child care expert if you have any questions concerning your family's health. For severe or life-threatening conditions, seek immediate medical attention.