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Antidepressants Taken By Pregnant Women Linked to Autism in Boys, According to Study

Filed April 15th, 2014 Laurie

New research shows that boys with autism were three times more likely to have had mothers who took SSRI antidepressant drugs while they were pregnant.

The results of the study, published online today and in the May print issue of the journal Pediatrics, also found that boys whose mothers took SSRIs during pregnancy were also more likely to have developmental delays, according to’s Healthy Living blog.

SSRIs are a class of drugs that include popular antidepressants like Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, and Lexapro.
“We found prenatal SSRI exposure was almost three times as likely in boys with autism spectrum disorders relative to typical development, with the greatest risk when exposure is during the first trimester,” said study co-author Li-Ching Lee, an associate scientist in the department of epidemiology at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Of course, untreated depression is also dangerous to a developing fetus. Dr. Lee called the decision whether or not to treat depressed pregnant women with antidepressants “complex” and said “there are so many factors to consider,” Healthy Living reported.

SSRIs cross the placenta and increase levels of the hormone serotonin in the fetus, which they also do in the mother. SSRIs are intended to increase serotonin levels in users to decrease depression. Antidepressants are used by about four percent of pregnant women, according to Healthy Living.

About one in three children has higher-than-normal serotonin levels, which researchers believe may lead to the development of abnormal brain circuitry, which may have an effect on the development of autism, the study authors wrote.

There has been conflicting information about the correlation between the use of SSRI medications during pregnancy and autism, but at least one study from November 2011 produced similar findings to research of Lee and his colleagues. The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, concluded that children whose mothers used SSRIs during pregnancy had double the risk of autism, according to Healthy Living.

For this most recent study, SSRI exposure was lowest in the typically developing children, with just 3.4 percent exposed during pregnancy. SSRI exposure occurred in 5.9 percent of pregnancies that produced children with autism, and SSRI exposure occurred in 5.2 percent of pregnancies for children with developmental delays. Boys, specifically, were three times more likely to have been exposed to SSRI medications while developing in the womb. The rate was highest for those exposed during the first trimester, Healthy Living reported.

According to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued last month, one in 68 American children is now diagnosed with autism or a related disorder. That is a 30 percent increase from just two years ago, when the estimate was one in 88 children, according to Healthy Living.

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