Pregnancy Use of Antidepressants Increases Autism Risk in Boys: Study

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Expecting mothers who use antidepressants like Paxil or Zoloft during pregnancy may have three times the risk of giving birth to boys with autism, according to the findings of new research.  

In a study published online by the medical journal Pediatrics on April 14, researchers from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, indicate that the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) antidepressants during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder diagnosis among boys.

SSRI antidepressants are some of the most widely used drugs in the United States, including blockbuster brands such as Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro and others.

This research is the latest in a series of studies that highlight potential concerns surrounding pregnancy use of antidepressants. To examine the risk of autism from antidepressants, researchers looked at data on 966 mother-child pairs from the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE). The researchers interviewed the mothers on prenatal SSRI use, their mental health history and sociodemographic information.

The study indicates that prenatal SSRI exposure was lowest in typically developed (TD) children. However, boys appeared to be at a much greater risk for autism if their mothers took the drugs while pregnant.

“Among boys, prenatal SSRI exposure was nearly 3 times as likely in children with ASD relative to TD,” according to the study, which noted that “the strongest association occurred with first-trimester exposure.”

The researchers also found that boys who suffered developmental delays were also more likely to have a pregnant mother who took an SSRI antidepressant as well.

The conclusions, however, note that findings on the link between antidepressants and autism have been inconsistent. 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 published in April 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.

Antidepressant Pregnancy Concerns

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 use has also been linked to an increased risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension in newborns (PPHN), which is a serious respiratory disorder that 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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