A new study, the first to look at autism risk in children whose mothers took an antidepressant during pregnancy, has found that the children of these mothers are twice as likely to be diagnosed with either autism or a related disorder.
A class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be especially risky if taken during early pregnancy. Children who were exposed during the first trimester to these antidepressants were almost four times as likely to develop an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared to unexposed children.
The lead author of the study, Lisa Croen, Ph.D, director of autism research at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, however, urges caution in interpreting these results. "We can't detect causality from one study." Untreated depression carries its own set of risks, Croen adds, and "the potential risks to the child really have to be balanced with the risk to the untreated mom. We don't want people to rush off and stop taking antidepressants if they are on them. They need to talk to their doctors about the risk-benefit ratio."
Croen suggests that there could be other reasons for a statistical link between autism and SSRI use besides causation. For example, it could be that better awareness and diagnosis of autism simply occurred at the same time that SSRI use was also on the rise. While the results of this study are compelling, it is simply impossible to say at this point what the association means.
The study was published online on July 4, 2011 in the Archives of General Psychiatry.