Study Suggests Antidepressants May Be Linked to Higher Risk of Autism, But Chance is Still Slim

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WATCH Study Suggests Exposure to Antidepressants in Utero May Be Linked to Higher Risk of Autism

A new study is putting the spotlight on the possible relationship between antidepressants taken during pregnancy and the risk of autism, although researchers emphasize the risk of untreated depression during pregnancy is a major concern.

Researchers from University of Montreal published the study today in JAMA Pediatrics. They looked at 145,456 kids in Quebec, born between 1998 and 2009, to see if children of women who took antidepressants while pregnant were at an increased risk of developing an autism disorder.

Across the entire group, 1,054 children were diagnosed with autism, or 0.72 percent.

They found that the children of women who took antidepressants during the second and/or third trimester were at an 87 percent higher risk to develop autism than those without exposure. Of the 2,532 children who fell into this category, 31 were diagnosed with autism (1.2 percent).

The risk was increased further for children of those women taking the most common form of antidepressants, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), who had a 117 percent greater chance of developing an autism disorder. Of the 1,583 children in this category, 22 were diagnosed with autism (about 1.4 percent).

Experts said the findings were clinically significant but emphatically stressed that no pregnant woman currently on antidepressants should stop treatment without talking to her physician first. They also said that pregnant women who are untreated for depression faced other risk factors in their pregnancy.

Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, said pregnant women on SSRIs should not stop taking their medication without more study and information.

"The absolute risk is still low and the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor that it’s low," Wiznitzer said of the chance of a child developing autism after his or her mother took an SSRI.

Wiznitzer pointed out that this was just a single study and that women should not fear their medication if it's helping them with their depression.

"They need to be informed consumers and can make rational judgments about what’s best for them," Wiznitzer further explained.

An accompanying editorial written by Dr. Bryan King, Program Director of the Autism Center in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between antidepressants and the development of a fetus.

King pointed out that other studies have found that depression and autism may share underlying risk factors and possible genetic links.

Pregnant women with untreated depression are at a risk for a variety of other complications, according to King, including prenatal stress that can reduce blood flow and increase risk of damaged tissue or preterm birth.

In one study mentioned by King, women on SSRIs had reduced risk for preterm births, cesarean section and late term births compared to women with psychiatric disorders who were not on medication.