For more information or confidential assistance
se habla español

Antidepressants During Pregnancy Boosts Autism Risk, Study Shows

pregnant woman illustrationA new study released by Professor Anick Berard from the University of Montreal has revealed that pregnant women who take antidepressants during the second and/or third trimester ultimately increase the likelihood that their children will receive an autism diagnosis by the time they reach the age of 7.

According to the study, the danger is especially significant if expectant mothers use drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro and Celexa.

Details of SSRI study

The data forming the basis of this study were obtained via the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort, and the research team examined 145,456 youngsters from their time of conception through to the age of ten. Not only did the data set include information concerning whether or not mothers used antidepressant drugs while pregnant and whether children received autism diagnoses, it also provided insights concerning other factors such as genetic predisposition and socioeconomic variables, which enabled the scientists to isolate the true impact of the SSRIs on children.

According to Professor Bérard, the study ultimately defined antidepressant exposure as situations in which a mother had at least one prescription for antidepressant drugs filled within the second or third trimester. Researchers selected this period because it is known to be a critical time frame for development of the infant’s brain. Once the final analysis was complete, it was revealed that an 87% increase in risk of autism existed in children whose mothers used this class of medications while pregnant.

Significance of research results

The outcome of this study is potentially very significant due to the fact that roughly 6-10 percent of all expectant mothers use antidepressant drugs. Considering that autism cases have risen from an average of 4 in 10,000 youngsters back in 1966 to 100 in every 10,000 at present, it is therefore crucial to identify any and all possible environmental factors contributing to the problem.

Depression remains a widespread problem worldwide, suggesting that SSRIs and other antidepressant drugs are almost certain to remain in heavy use for the foreseeable future. Gaining an understanding of how these medications affect developing fetuses is therefore essential.

SSRIs linked to birth defects in addition to autism

Though certainly alarming, the possible connection between SSRIs and autism is not the only concern raised in recent years about the use of such drugs by expectant mothers. Back in 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert regarding a link between SSRI use during pregnancy and the eventual development of a condition known as Persistent Hypertension of the Newborn (PPHN) in babies. PPHN prevents infants from breathing properly outside the womb, depriving critical organs of the oxygen they need.

In 2011, the FDA issued an updated communication informing the public about the need to make educated judgments regarding whether to use antidepressant medications during pregnancy in light of ongoing concerns about SSRIs and birth defects. The agency encouraged expectant others to engage in informed decision making based on the possibility that their antidepressant medications could be connected to serious birth defects including club foot, cleft palate, omphalocele and spina bifida.

  1. Science Daily, Taking antidepressants during pregnancy increases risk of autism by 87 percent,
  2. JAMA Pediatrics, Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy and the Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children,
  3. 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,
  4. CBS News, Antidepressant use in pregnancy linked to autism in boys: study,