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Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy Could Increase Autism Risk

Update Date: Apr 15, 2014 10:55 AM EDT

During pregnancy, whatever a woman consumes, ranging from fruits and vegetables to prescription drugs, can affect the health of the unborn child. Due to these risks, many studies have been conducted to determine what is safe for the mother to intake. In a new study, researchers are reporting that depressed mothers who take medications known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) increase their son's risk of having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The researchers examined 966 mother-child pairs. Roughly 800 children were boys and the average age was four. Around 500 of the children were diagnosed with an ASD, 154 experienced some kind of developmental delay and 320 were considered children that developed typically. The SSRIs examined in the study were Celexa, Lezapro, Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft.

The researchers found that children who were exposed to SSRIS the most had the highest incidence of autism. The researchers found that in the autism group, 5.9 percent of the pregnancies were exposed to SSRIs. In the delayed developmental group, 5.2 percent of the pregnancies were exposed to SSRIs. Exposure rate in the typically developing children group was 3.4 percent. In terms of gender, the researchers reported that boys were three times more likely to have autism if they were exposed to the antidepressants during the first trimester.

"We found prenatal SSRI exposure was almost three times as likely in boys with autism spectrum disorders relative to typical development, with the greatest risk when exposure is during the first trimester," said study co-author Li-Ching Lee, an associate scientist in the department of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, MD.

In addition, boys were three to five times more likely to suffer from developmental delays if they were exposed to SSRIs in comparison to typically developing children. The risks were greatest if exposure occurred during the third trimester. The researchers noted that they did not find a cause-and-effect relationship and therefore, depressed women should not stop taking medications if they become pregnant. Women should consult with their doctors regarding their medical regimen during pregnancy.

"It's a complex decision whether to treat or not treat depression with medications during pregnancy," Lee said reported by WebMD. "There are so many factors to consider. We didn't intend for our study to be used as a basis for clinical treatment decisions. Women should talk with their doctors about SSRI treatments."

One expert, Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder program at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City, stated that even though the study ties use of SSRIs during pregnancy to autism risk, the risk is still relatively small. He explained that if the risk is at one percent right now, antidepressant use during pregnancy would increase that risk to three percent, which means that the majority of the time, the child will not develop autism.

The study was published in Pediatrics.

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