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Taking Valproate During Pregnancy Linked to a Three-Fold Increase in Children with Autism

Update Date: Apr 24, 2013 11:31 AM EDT

Valproate is a drug that is given to people who suffer from epileptic seizures, bipolar disorder and migraines. It is also prescribed off-label to people who suffer from other psychiatric disorders. However, according to a recent study conducted by researchers from Aarhus University in Hospital in Denmark, the risks of the drug may outweigh the benefits for some women. Taking the drug during pregnancy has been linked to a three-fold increase in the risk of autism spectrum disorder for babies.

According to HealthDay, the study examined 650,000 babies who had been born in Denmark between the years of 1996 and 2006. The risk of having any form of autism spectrum disorder rose by nearly three times in babies whose mothers had taken Valproate, while the risk of childhood autism about doubled.

"The absolute risk of being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder was 4.4 percent in children exposed to valproate compared to 1.5 percent in children not exposed to valproate. The absolute risk of being diagnosed with childhood autism was 2.5 percent in children exposed to valproate compared to 0.5 percent in children not exposed to valproate," lead author Jakob Christensen, a consultant neurologist, said.

The researchers believe that doctors should detail the risks of the drug with their patients who are of childbearing age. It is not just enough to consider the risks for women who are trying to become pregnant, because nearly half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. It is of particular concern because many of the effects of the drug occur early in pregnancy, sometimes even before the woman knows that she is pregnant.

Valproate has been linked to a variety of birth abnormalities. Businessweek reports that children whose mothers had taken the drug during pregnancy received lower cognitive scores than children who were unexposed to the drug. Previous research on the matter has also found that children exposed to the drug during pregnancy were at increased risk for heart problems, spina bifida and cleft palate. As a result, the use of the drug has decreased in recent years, as there are other medications that do not hold such risks.

Researchers note that most women who took the drug during pregnancy did not have babies with autism spectrum disorder. That is because women would have needed to have the genetics that made their child susceptible the condition.

The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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