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Nancy Schimelpfening

Antidepressants During Pregnancy Raise Autism Risk?

By July 5, 2011

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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.

July 6, 2011 at 6:02 am
(1) Becky S says:

I tend to think it’s the other way around – those mothers who suffer from depression (untreated) have something in them genetically that increases the risk of autistic characteristics in their child. I have struggled with depression all of my life and was able to manage it without antidepressants until my child was three years old. She is autistic and the combination of my own chronic depression and the tremendous learning curve of being the mom to an autistic child has had me on antidepressant meds ever since. They help me cope but definitely do not “cure” the symptoms. I also believe this is just one of many, many factors that can increase the risk of having a child who is on the autism spectrum. Just my thoughts based on personal experience so far.

July 6, 2011 at 1:20 pm
(2) SammyD says:

Becky, you took the words right out of my typing fingers. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head and i completely agree with you. Children of depressed mothers must take on some of the chemical or biological imbalances that are effecting the mother. I’m sorry to hear about your situation and hope you continue to improve. Antidepressants don’t cure. The underlying symptoms need treating. But ADs are a useful therapy to help an individual cope with the issue they’re facing. I’ve been on ADs for depression, but don’t have an autistic child. I have two grown-up children who were born before I hit depression. All the best to you and your lovely daughter x

July 7, 2011 at 12:09 am
(3) skp says:

Depression is a disease but anti depressants should be used cautiously as it can give rise to congenital defects.Research must be done in this field.

July 8, 2011 at 2:21 am
(4) Dr Vin Family Doctor from Australia says:

How to interpret data can be very difficult.

In my practice, Iam always very mindful of how to intepret any new data that is presented to me. I often say that no information is sometimes better than having bad information. Bad information can create a lot of anxiety, panic, and misguided action or “reactions”.

There is a particular study that I want to highlight to illustrate how information can be “misintepreted”.

There was a study that we reviewed during my study as a medical student. The study showed an association between the risk of leg clots in hospital patients and smoking. It actually showed that the smokers had LESS RISK of getting leg clots. So the question is, “Can you conclude that smoking is good at preventing leg clots?”. Sounds absurd I know, but this was “true” from the study.

However, on further appraisal, they concluded that there was a “confounding factor”. Smokers were not allowed to smoke in the ward so they had to walk outside to have a smoke. So, it was actually the walking and the mobilizing that helped to reduce the risk of clots and not the smoking at all.

This highlights that you have to look at a study closely in order to get a “true picture”. Intepreting studies can be like looking at the clouds sometimes. You can see what you want to see, so be careful. Rely on a credible source and your Health Professionals to sieve out the good information from the bad.

Dr Vin
Family Doctor Australia

October 17, 2011 at 9:20 am
(5) Cordelia says:

I have heard of a study on CNN.com that may link autism to women who were pregnant and took the antidepressant, either Zoloft or Prozac or any other medication including an SSRI and their child has autism now. Has anyone else seen any other health reports or documentations online? Please let me know!

Thank you!

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