Does Antidepressant Use In Pregnancy Increase Autism Risk?

By Øyvind Holmstad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The use of antidepressants during pregnancy has always been a hotly debated topic. However, recently it’s come to light that using these medications during pregnancy can greatly increase the risk of autism in unborn babies. This information comes from a study done by Professor Anick Berard of the University of Montreal and its sister affiliate Sainte-Justine Children’s Hospital.

The Study

Professor Berard came to the conclusive link between taking antidepressants during pregnancy and the increased risk of autism through reviewing data covering 145,456 pregnancies.

She explained by stating, “The variety of causes of autism remain unclear, but studies have shown that both genetics and environment can play a role. Our 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, especially if the mother takes selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, often known by its acronym SSRIs.”
The findings of her study are published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Professor Berard and her team worked with information from the Quebec Pregnancy Cohort. They studied 145,456 children from the time of conception up to the age of 10 years old. Additionally, they reviewed information about the mother’s use of antidepressants and the child’s eventual diagnosis with autism.
The information the team studied contained a wealth of information that helped the team discover the specific information regarding the impact of the antidepressant medications. Some individuals are genetically predisposed to autism, but maternal age, certain socio-economic factors, and depression are known to be associated with autism.

Berard stated, “We defined exposure to antidepressants as the mother having had one or more prescriptions for antidepressants filled during the second or third trimester of pregnancy. This period was chosen as the infant’s critical brain development occurs during this time.”

She further added, “Amongst all the children in the study, we then identified which children had been diagnosed with a form of autism by looking at hospital records indicating diagnosed childhood autism, atypical autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or a pervasive developmental disorder. Finally, we looked for a statistical association between the two groups, and found a very significant one: an estimated 87% increased risk.”

The results of the study remained unchanged when only considering children who had been diagnosed by specialists like a neurologist or a psychiatrist.

In Closing:

The findings of the study are very important because six to ten percent of pregnant women are currently under treatment for depression and taking antidepressant medications. In the study, 1,054 children were diagnosed with autism and the average age of diagnosis was 4.5 years old. The diagnosis of autism has increased from 4 in 100,000 children in 1996, to 100 in 100,000 today.

Prof. Berard stated,” It is biologically plausible that antidepressants are causing autism if used at the time of brain development in the womb, as serotonin is involved in numerous pre-and postnatal developmental processes, including cell division, the migration of neuros, cell differentiation and synaptogenesis-the creation of links between brain cells.” She went on further to say, “Some classes of antidepressants work by inhibiting serotonin (SSRIs and some other antidepressant classes), which will have a negative impact on the ability of the brain to fully develop and adapt in-utero.”

According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second leading cause of death by 2020. Antidepressants are likely to continue being prescribed, including to women during pregnancy. It’s important for a woman to discuss the use of antidepressants during pregnancy and to work out a treatment plan which will minimize the chances of negative effects on her unborn child.

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