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New Study Links Antidepressant Use to Autism Risk

pregnant womanAnother study has found a compelling association between use of antidepressants during pregnancy and autism in children born to those women. The study found that women who used these drugs during the second half of their pregnancies increased the risk that their unborn children would eventually be diagnosed with autism by 87 percent.

Autism risk increases 87 percent

Researchers at the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital looked at data from 145,456 pregnancies to determine whether antidepressant use affected the likelihood of having a child with autism. The large number of records allowed the scientists to adjust their findings based on other autism risk factors, such as genetics, medical history of the mother and socio-economic factors.

They specifically looked at antidepressants used during the second and third trimesters, since this is the time when critical fetal brain development occurs. The researchers followed the children until the age of 10, looking for diagnoses of childhood autism, atypical autism, Asperger’s syndrome and a pervasive developmental disorder. When they compared the statistical association between children diagnosed with autism and mothers that used antidepressants, they discovered an 87-percent increased risk.

More women taking antidepressants while pregnant

The findings of this study come at a time when 6-10 percent of pregnant women are taking antidepressants as prescribed by their physicians. This particular study found that 1,054 children in the study group were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, which accounted for .72 percent of all the children born in this study. Researchers noted that the incidence of autism has also increased dramatically in the U.S. overall, from four in 10,000 children in 1966 to 100 in 10,000 today.

“Due to the fact that antidepressants are ‘likely to remain widely used’ in the future, a better understanding of the long-term neurodevelopmental effects of [antidepressants] on children when used during gestation is a public health priority,” the lead author of the study, Anick Berard, wrote in the study findings.

The recent study, which was published in JAMA Pediatrics this month, is not the first to link autism and antidepressants during pregnancy. It is, however, the largest and most compelling to date.

Other risks of antidepressants

Studies have also found use of antidepressants during pregnancy can increase the risk for other conditions in newborns. A government study conducted earlier this year found that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) use during pregnancy, specifically use of Prozac and Paxil, increased the risk of some birth defects. In addition to heart defects, researchers found a higher incidence of brain and abdominal abnormalities in these infants.

A Pfizer report, also released earlier this year, warned that the company’s antidepressant Zoloft could increase the risk for birth defects. The report, issued by a scientist to Pfizer executives, recommended the company make changes to the drug’s warning label to account for this risk. Pfizer is currently facing more than 1,000 Zoloft lawsuits alleging use of the drug during pregnancy led to cardiac abnormalities in newborns.

In 2011, the FDA issued a safety communication, alerting the medical community and general public that SSRI use during pregnancy could increase the risk for a rare condition known as persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn, a serious and sometimes fatal condition that occurs when the baby cannot adjust to breathing outside the womb easily.

  1. Science Daily, Taking Antidepressants during Pregnancy Increases Risk of Autism by 87 Percent

  2. Chicago Tribune, Maternal Exposure to Antidepressants Linked to Autism in Children,

  3. Reuters, Study Links Prozac, Paxil Use with Birth Defects,

  4. Bloomberg, Pfizer Report Warns of Possible Zoloft and Birth Defect Link,

  5. FDA, FDA Drug Safety Communication: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy and Reports of a Rare Heart and Lung Condition in Newborn Babies,