Antidepressants: Autism Study Finds Possible Link Between Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy And Autism

A new study of antidepressant use during pregnancy found a possible link between a certain class of antidepressants and autism, The L.A. Times reported.

The new study, published on Monday in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics, suggests that pregnant women who use antidepressants known as SSRI’s (selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors) during the second and third trimester of pregnancy were more than twice as likely to give birth to a child that who would later be diagnosed with autism than those who did not. Popular antidepressants including Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft are SSRIs.

Antidepressant Autism study

Among all babies in the study, 1,054 (0.7 percent) would later be diagnosed with autism. Additionally, 2,532 babies had mothers who took antidepressants (SSRIs specifically) during the second or third trimester of their pregnancies; 31 of them (1.2 percent) would later be diagnosed with autism. Of the 4,000 babies whose mothers took antidepressants during the first trimester of their pregnancy, 40 of them (1 percent) would later be diagnosed with autism.

Researchers have long suspected that a mother’s history of depression may be a factor in increasing the risk of a child being born with autism, but the new study casts some doubt on that idea. When comparing women who had a history of depression but did not take antidepressants during pregnancy to those who did, researchers found that women who took SSRIs were 75 percent more likely to give birth to a child eventually diagnosed with autism than depressed women who did not take them.

The new study is the strongest evidence yet that antidepressant use during pregnancy can be detrimental to the baby. The study does not, however, conclude that antidepressant use is the sole cause of autism. The causes of autism remain poorly-understood, even as autism rates appear to be surging — a November L.A. Times report suggests that as many as one in 45 children will eventually be diagnosed with autism.

Other factors believed to be linked to autism, according to MSN, include: premature birth (or low birth weight at full term), babies who experienced medical distress during birth, babies with older parents, babies born less than a year after a sibling, mothers who smoke (or who expose the fetus to other environmental factors such as air pollution or poor nutrition), mothers who have high blood pressure, mothers who are obese, mothers who were hospitalized for infections, and mothers who had low levels of folic acid early in their pregnancies, among many others.

The newly-discovered link between antidepressant use and autism puts mothers who are battling depression in a difficult position, as they may feel the need to stop taking antidepressants during their pregnancy to reduce the risk of autism. Similarly, many insurance policies prefer to pay for prescription pills — a cheap depression treatment — over more costly measures, such as therapy.

Still, Susan Hyman, chief of neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics at Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester in New York, wants mothers and would-be mothers battling depression to know that the new research doesn’t conclusively mean they shouldn’t take antidepressants during pregnancy.

“The overwhelming number of women who use SSRIs during pregnancy don’t have a child with autism.”

Paul Wang, head of medical research at the advocacy group Autism Speaks (Autism Speaks was not involved in the study), reminds mothers that they should never stop taking antidepressants, or any other medications, without first talking it over with their doctor.

[Image via Shutterstock/Emilie Zhang]