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New Study Finds Link Between SSRI Antidepressants and Autism

New Study Finds Link Between SSRI Antidepressants and AutismResearchers at Johns Hopkins have found that when taken during pregnancy the popular antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) are linked to autism and developmental delays in boys. The study, published in the online journal Pediatrics, looked at nearly 1,000 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental delays (DD) and typical development (TD). Because most of the children studied happened to be boys, the researchers concluded that the nature of SSRIs’ prenatal side effects has something to do with whether the baby in utero is a boy or a girl—and that boys may be more at risk for autism and developmental delays.

“We found prenatal SSRI exposure was nearly 3 times as likely in boys with ASD relative to typical development, with the greatest risk when exposure took place during the first trimester,” said Li-Ching Lee, Ph.D., Sc.M., from John Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “SSRI was also elevated among boys with DD, with the strongest exposure effect in the third trimester.”

In other words, first trimester SSRI use is linked with higher risks for ASD and third trimester with DD.

SSRIs and heightened risk for other defects

The implications of this study confirm those of previous ones: medicines taken during pregnancy that potentially alter serotonin levels in the brain en utero can pose sometimes serious birth and developmental risks and complications for exposed babies.

Such studies have found that SSRIs like Celexa and Zoloft may additionally be linked to birth defects ranging in seriousness from clubfoot, craniosynostosis (abnormally shaped head) and certain surgically repairable heart malformations, to spina bifida, omphalocele (a highly lethal deformation of the, and persistent hypertension in newborns (PPHN).

Connection between SSRIs and ADS?

Since their emergence in the 1990’s, SSRI antidepressants such as Celexa, Zoloft and Paxil have soared in popularity—so much so that in the year 2005 they were the most prescribed medicine in the United States. SSRIs work to alleviate depression and anxiety by increasing levels of the “happy” chemical in the brain known as serotonin, which moderates moods; they do this by blocking neural receptors that naturally absorb serotonin.

Because SSRIs and their use are a relatively recent phenomenon, studies of their risks for babies in the womb are an even newer development. Therefore it is still too early to determine whether an increase in prevalence of autistic spectrum disorder in children—more people than ever are being diagnosed with ASD—can really be conclusively linked to an increase in prevalence of SSRIs in pregnancy. The results of the Johns Hopkins study raise some preliminary questions as to whether there is a relationship here.

An estimated 1 in 68 children in the U.S. will contract ADS, and the disorder occurs at a rate of frequency that is almost five times greater among boys, according to The Center for Disease Control (CDC). The disorder can cause significant social, behavioral and emotional challenges—but studies have also shown these challenges can be alleviated by early intervention therapies starting as early as at birth.

  1. Science Daily, SSRI use during pregnancy linked to autism and developmental delays in boys,

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Facts About ASD,