Study Reports Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy Linked to Autism

Pregnant woman looking out a windowA large study of Canadian women and their children published in JAMA Pediatrics has reported a link between the use of certain antidepressants by mothers during pregnancy and increased risk of autism in their children.

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, between 14% and 23% of women will experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children will develop autism.

The Link Between Autism and Antidepressants

For the study, Anick Bérard, a perinatal epidemiologist at the University of Montreal, and her colleagues looked at data collected on 145,456 babies born between 1998 and 2009 in Quebec.

Compared to children whose mothers did not take antidepressants, children whose mothers used any class of antidepressants during the second or third trimesters of pregnancy had an 87% increase in their risk of developing autism. Children whose mothers took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—one of the most common classes of antidepressants—had a 200% increase in risk of developing autism. In an interview with ResearchGate, Bérard says “this risk is above and beyond the risk associated with maternal depression alone (maternal depression was associated with a 20 percent increased risk of autism in our study).”

Bérard says women with mild to moderate depression should consider exercise and psychotherapy to reduce the risk. For women with severe depression, Bérard says antidepressant use may still be appropriate.

Putting the Results into Perspective

Depression can make the transition to motherhood challenging and may interfere with a woman’s ability to bond with her baby. So for women with severe depression, the benefits of antidepressants likely outweigh the risks.

In response to the study, some mental health professionals caution that the study is flawed and may cause unnecessary panic. The risk of autism in the general population is still a small one of around 1%, and the 87% increase reported in the study would raise that risk overall to 2%. Moreover, research has found that women who experience some kinds of diagnosed mental health issues during pregnancy are already more likely to have children later diagnosed with autism regardless of antidepressant use in pregnancy.

Bérard serves as a plaintiff’s consultant in lawsuits about antidepressant-related birth defects, so critics say her results are unsurprising. Nevertheless, some animal studies have found a small increase in the risk of fetal developmental issues when animals take antidepressants, so it is unlikely that poor study design or researcher bias account for the study’s results.

Both autism and depression can be challenging issues to navigate; women should talk to their doctors about the risks and benefits of antidepressant use during pregnancy. Neither the study itself nor its authors suggest women should cease antidepressant use during pregnancy without a consultation.

References:

  1. Antidepressants taken during pregnancy increase risk of autism by 87 percent. (2015, December 14).  Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/antidepressants-taken-during-pregnancy-increase-risk-of-autism-by-87-percent
  2. Boukhris, T., Sheehy, O., Mottron, L., & Bérard, A. (2015). Antidepressant use during pregnancy and the risk of autism spectrum disorder in children. JAMA Pediatrics, 1. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3356
  3. Depression during pregnancy: Signs, symptoms and treatment. (2012, April 30). Retrieved from http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/depression-during-pregnancy/
  4. Underwood, E. (2015, December). Reality check: Taking antidepressants while pregnant unlikely to double autism risk in kids. Retrieved from http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2015/12/reality-check-taking-antidepressants-while-pregnant-unlikely-double-autism

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  • Phyllis

    Phyllis

    December 22nd, 2015 at 2:42 PM

    Oh wow this is scary to go back and read because I was one of those women who took an antidepressant the entire pregnancy. I have not had any problems with it and neither have my children but I think about how easily things could have been different.

  • Peyton

    Peyton

    December 23rd, 2015 at 5:32 AM

    This is something that all women of child bearing age should be aware of

  • Parker

    Parker

    December 25th, 2015 at 4:42 AM

    I am sure that there are numerous families out there wondering if something that they did while pregnant would have caused them to have an autistic child. I guess my biggest concern about this is that it then makes it look like you are blaming the mother for something that she had no control over. Likely there was a medical professional who would have recommended this course of treatment for her. I also wonder why if this is the case autism does not usually show up until the child is older and not at birth.

  • jack

    jack

    December 26th, 2015 at 1:39 PM

    any thoughts on whether it is actually the presence of a mental health issue that is more linked to the onset of autism versus the medication itself?

  • Roxie

    Roxie

    December 27th, 2015 at 3:57 PM

    I thought that women who are pregnant should take as few meds as possible?

  • rosa

    rosa

    December 28th, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    This is something that would have to be weighed out very carefully with your ob gyn. You have to look at the pros and the cons and determine which is going to be the most beneficial to you. I think that as a mother most of us would choose to do nothing that could potentially harm the mental or physical health of our baby, but again, I think it is wise to have a long conversation with your doctor so that you can work on what the best solution and care for you will be.

  • Aidan

    Aidan

    December 29th, 2015 at 2:48 PM

    There will have to be many studies done to prove if this is something that more doctors have to begin looking at a lot more carefully.
    I assume that most of the time with pregnant patients they are going to err on the side of caution anyway, but this gives them even more reason to do so.

  • simone

    simone

    December 30th, 2015 at 12:43 PM

    For me these numbers alone would be reason enough to try to tough it out and not take any of these indicated antidepressants while pregnant. I would do anything that I could to make sure that my baby is healthy and to me these kinds of numbers only indicate that there is some kind of strong correlation between that medication and autism rates. I would just not be willing to take that kind of chance with my child.

  • Kevin

    Kevin

    January 4th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    To be clear the study is just a correlation, so it is not making the conclusion that the meds caused the effect. In fact it could be true that women who would benefit from use of an antidepressant have higher rates of autism in children, even if they don’t take the actual medication.

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