- Scientists wanted to see if there was a link between autism and antidepressants
- Children are 81% more likely to have the condition if their mother took the drugs
- They also found a link to women who take the drugs before becoming pregnant
- The findings are concerning given the usage of the drugs in expectant mothers
Pregnant women who take antidepressants are more likely to give birth to autistic children, new research suggests. Youngsters are 81 per cent more likely to be on the spectrum if their mother took drugs for ‘the blues’. After reviewing a host of previous studies, scientists also found a link to women who take the prescription drugs before becoming pregnant.
Children had a 77 per cent higher risk of being born with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) if their mother used antidepressants before conceiving. The findings are concerning given the increasing usage of the medications during pregnancy, experts say. However, they warn that women relying on the drugs to correct their moods should not stop taking them as the evidence to prove antidepressants cause autism is weak. And the French researchers believe there could even be consequences to not treating depression during pregnancy.
Study author Dr Florence Gressier, of the Bicetre University Hospital, said: ‘Each prescription should be evaluated individually.’ Writing in JAMA Pediatrics, the team of scientists said up to 15 per cent of women have depression during pregnancy. And the use of antidepressants in expectant mothers is increasing around the world, they added after looking at eight studies. But they found no link between antidepressant use during pregnancy and ASDs after looking at a further two studies that followed 772,331 children.
Irene Petersen, a researcher at the University College London, who was not involved in the study, said it’s tricky to study the exposure on antidepressants in pregnancy and the risk of ASDs, as the effects of drug treatment are often difficult to be separated from other risk factors such as maternal illnesses. She told the Business Standard: ‘The findings from this review suggest that antidepressant treatment may be a “marker” of women who may have an elevated risk of giving birth to a child with ASD.
‘However, I would be very cautious about reaching a conclusion that antidepressants treatment in pregnancy itself is causing autism. ‘With the existing evidence, we still cannot exclude the possibility that it is maternal illnesses linked to ASD – and not the antidepressants.’ Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, said: ‘We urge people not to jump to conclusions about this study, which brings together findings from previous research. ‘Although it’s useful to have this overview, as the authors recognise, the data linking antidepressants to autism is far from conclusive and the results are difficult to interpret.
It’s also important to recognise that many other factors could be at play. ‘It’s therefore vital that no-one bases any decisions about their care on these findings alone. Any mothers-to-be who are concerned about the best treatment for depression should discuss this with their doctor.’ Around one in seven women suffer depression during pregnancy, according to figures. Although many cases are minor, an estimated 20,000 pregnant women each year are thought to take antidepressants – around one in 25 of all British pregnancies.
The NHS advises that the drugs are not recommended for most pregnant women. But it says exceptions can be made depending on the severity of the depression, because withdrawing any treatment could make it far worse. The most popular ones, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are linked to a number of risks. A controversial book released earlier this year said evidence for the drugs are flawed and that they have never been shown to correct the chemical imbalance they are designed to. They should be considered no better than a placebo, according to the ten expert authors of The Sedated Society.
Previous studies have shown that women with untreated depression are at higher risk of potentially deadly birth complications. But more research is needed to make a conclusive verdict between antidepressants and autism, the researchers added. Dr Patrick O’Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, previously said: ‘Depression in pregnancy can be very serious for a woman and can also impact on the health of her baby, so we must consider the benefits of antidepressant medication in such cases.
‘Our advice for pregnant women suffering with depression would be that generally the benefits outweigh the risks, however, all pros and cons should be discussed and weighed up by a woman, together with her obstetrician.’