Using antidepressants during pregnancy can have a detrimental effect on the developing baby. Professor Anick BÃ©rard of the University of Montreal and its affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital revealed that the use of antidepressant during pregnancy increases the risk of autism for the baby by a whopping 87%. The findings were published recently in JAMA Pediatrics.
Prof. BÃ©rard, an internationally renowned expert in the fields of pharmaceutical safety during pregnancy, studied data from 145,456 pregnancies before coming to this conclusion. She remarked that the variety of causes of autism remains unclear, but as per the studies so far both genetics and environment can play a role. She further added that her recent study has established that taking antidepressants during the second or third trimester of pregnancy almost doubles the risk that the child will be diagnosed with autism by age 7. This is particularly true if the mother takes selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, often known by its acronym SSRIs.
As a part of this study, BÃ©rard and her colleagues reviewed and studied the data from the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort and studied 145,456 children between the times of their conception up to age ten. Other factors that were included in their study were the mother’s use of antidepressants and the child’s eventual diagnosis of autism. There was a wealth of details in the data that enabled the team to tease out the specific impact of the antidepressant drugs. Certain factors were quite significant like some people are genetically predisposed to autism because of a family history of it; maternal age and depression are known to be associated with the development of autism.
As per the World Health Organization depression will be the second leading cause of death by 2020. That's why researchers are of the opinion that antidepressants will likely to remain widely prescribed, including during pregnancy.
Prof. BÃ©rard said the exposure to antidepressants was defined as the mother having had one or more prescription for antidepressants filled during the second or third trimester of the pregnancy. Since, this period is critical for infant’s brain development, this period was chosen. She added that amongst all the children in the study, children who had been diagnosed with a form of autism like childhood autism, atypical autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or a pervasive developmental disorder were identified by looking at hospital records. The team then looked for a statistical association between the two groups, and found a very significant one: an 87% increased risk.
The findings are very significant as six to ten percent of pregnant women are typically treated for depression with antidepressants. In the current study, 1,054 children were diagnosed with autism (0.72% of the children in the study), on average at 4.5 years of age. There is an increased trend in prevalence of autism amongst children – from 4 in 10,000 children in 1966 to 100 in 10,000 today.
Some attribute that increase to both better detection and widening criteria for diagnosis, however, the role of environmental factors cannot be ignored. It is quite possible on a biological level that anti-depressants are causing autism when they are used at the time of brain development in the womb. Serotonin is critical for numerous pre- and postnatal developmental processes, including cell division, the migration of neuros, cell differentiation and synaptogenesis – the creation of links between brain cells. Certain classes of anti-depressants (like SSRIs) work by inhibiting serotonin which can certainly have a negative impact on the ability of the brain to fully develop and adapt in-utero.
Prof. BÃ©rard remarked that this study contributes to a better understanding of the long-term neurodevelopmental effects of anti-depressants on children when they are used during gestation. Since, antidepressants are widely used; uncovering the outcomes of these drugs is a public health priority.