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SSRI Antidepressant Side Effects Include Autism, Says Research

The use of antidepressants during pregnancy may double the risk of autism in the child, according to recent research published in the British Medical Journal.

The study adds to the concerns surrounding SSRI antidepressant side effects, which may also include birth defects and malformations. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the most widely prescribed antidepressants, and are known to be effective at treating severe depression. But the commonly-held perception that SSRI antidepressant side effects are less serious than other types of medication is false, according to the study.

Researchers from Stockholm compared data on 4,429 cases of autism spectrum disorders, using more than 40,000 control studies. The results showed that women using any kind of antidepressant while pregnant were about twice as likely to have a child that would test on the autism spectrum. There was no significant difference between non-SSRI and SSRI antidepressant side effects.

The analysis indicates that 0.6% of all autism cases – or 1 in 167 – may be a result of the mother using antidepressants during pregnancy.

Findings supported by other studies

The Swedish research is at least the second study to link antidepressants with autism spectrum disorders. The Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, CA, found a link between SSRIs and in utero damage in 2011. Researchers found a two-fold increased risk of autism, with the most notable effects occurring after first-term usage of SSRIs.

The lead author of the study, Lisa Croen, PhD, said at the time: “Our results suggest a possible, albeit small, risk to the unborn child associated with in utero exposure to SSRIs, but this possible risk must be balanced with risk to the mother of untreated mental health disorders.”

Croen added that further studies were needed. Both the Oakland and Stockholm researchers noted that doctors needed to weigh the mental health needs of the mother against the potential risk to the child.

SSRIs and pregnancy

Autism is not the only risk factor associated with exposing unborn children to antidepressants. Health problems linked to the use of SSRIs and other antidepressants during pregnancy include:

  • Septal heart defects
  • Skull malformations
  • Neural tube defects
  • Abdominal defects
  • Spina bifida
  • Persistent pulmonary hypertension in newborns (PPHN)

SSRI lawsuits

An increased understanding of potential SSRI antidepressant side effects has led to lawsuits being filed against manufacturers up and down the country. One drug, Zoloft, is at the center of multidistrict litigation (MDL), formed in 2012 and presided over by Judge Cynthia M. Rufe. Zoloft is manufactured and marketed by drug giant Pfizer.

In April, a status update submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania – where MDL proceedings are underway – stated that 336 cases had been consolidated, with a further 50+ pending in the federal court system. Additionally, there are several lawsuits relating to Zoloft pending at state courts around the country, including in Missouri, Illinois, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Judge Rufe has selected 25 of the Zoloft birth defects cases for bellwether trials, designed to help predict the likely outcome of SSRI lawsuits. The first is set to be heard no later than October 13, 2014.