Antidepressant Autism Risk Not Seen With Use in Pregnancy: Study

A mother’s use of antidepressant drugs during the first trimester of pregnancy does not appear to increase the infant’s risk of developing autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) later in life, according to the findings of a new study. 

Researchers from Indiana University indicate that while antidepressant use during pregnancy does not appear to be linked to an increase risk of autism or ADHD, antidepressant use was associated with an increased risk of premature birth. The findings were published online April 18, in the Journal of the America Medical Association (JAMA).

The research involved a retrospect cohort study of more than 1.5 million Swedish siblings born between 1996 and 2012. They focused on maternal use of antidepressants during the first trimester of pregnancy and compared exposed infants to infants unexposed to antidepressants during the first trimester.

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Researchers said fetal exposure to antidepressants was significantly associated with preterm birth, or a birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy. The risk for preterm birth was about 1.3 times higher for exposed siblings compared to siblings not exposed to antidepressants.

Most of the antidepressants used by the mothers in this study, 82%, were serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This is the most common type of antidepressant. The class includes Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa and others.

Overall, antidepressant use during first trimester was not linked to a higher risk of a child being born small for gestational age, autism spectrum disorder later in life or ADHD, according to the findings.

The study contradicts the findings of other research which found antidepressants to increase the risk of autism, especially in boys.

One study, published in 2015, linked antidepressant use during late pregnancy to increased risk of a child having autism. Those mothers had twice the risk of having a child with autism, compared to women who did not use antidepressants.

In this latest study, however, when researchers found a higher risk of autism or ADHD, they concluded the risk was linked to genetic or environmental factors, not antidepressant use. In some cases, a father’s concurrent use of antidepressants was also a factor.

Researchers said they controlled for multiple risk factors, and that this is one of the largest studies to date to focus on antidepressant use during pregnancy.

Antidepressant Pregnancy Concerns

This research is the latest in an ongoing scientific debate over the potential concerns surrounding side effects of antidepressants in pregnancy.

In a study published a year ago in the medical journal Pediatrics in April 2016, researchers from Johns Hopkins also found a link between the use of SSRIs during pregnancy and autism in boys. That study found the risk effectively tripled. However, research into the association has turned up inconsistent results.

In November 2013, a study published in the medical journal Clinical Epidemiology raised questions on whether there was an actual association between autism and SSRIs. The Danish researchers who conducted that study found no such link after looking at data on more than 600,000 children.

However, the Danish findings contradicted a study in the British Medical Journal, which indicated that there is a link between parental depression, antidepressant use and the risk of autism. That study, which looked at 4,429 cases of autism and more than 40,000 controls, finding that women who took any antidepressant while pregnant were about twice as likely to give birth to a child that would later test on the autism spectrum.

In July 2011, researchers from Kaiser Permanente reported that the use of SSRI antidepressants while pregnant was linked to twice the risk of giving birth to an autistic child.

In addition to autism, many popular antidepressants have been linked to a risk of serious health problems for children exposed to the medication before birth, including septal heart defects, skull malformations, neural tube defects, abdominal defects, spina bifida and other serious injuries.

Recent studies have also found that antidepressant use in pregnancy may increase the risk of seizure problems and delay of infant development milestones, such as sitting and walking are affected by antidepressant use during pregnancy.

Pregnancy antidepressant risks have also been linked to a serious respiratory disorder, known as persistent pulmonary hypertension in newborns (PPHN), which may cause insufficient blood flow to the lungs, leading to serious and potentially life-threatening problems.

In recent years, a growing number of Zoloft lawsuits and Paxil lawsuits have been filed in courts throughout the United States on behalf of children born with defects and malformations after exposure to the medication during pregnancy. The complaints allege that the manufacturers of the medications failed to adequately research the risks associated with use of the antidepressant in pregnancy, or provide proper warnings to women about the risk of becoming pregnant while using the medication.


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