Swedish Study Links Autism with Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy

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A recently published study cautiously suggests that antidepressant use during pregnancy may be associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) is based on Swedish medical birth register data and information from publicly funded screenings for autism spectrum disorders, and registers for various health issues, The New York Times reports.  The study controlled for other factors – including income, education, maternal and paternal age, and even the mother’s birth region – which have been associated with autism.

The Times notes that this is the second study in two years to associate antidepressant use during pregnancy with an increased incidence of autism in exposed children. A small study by researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in California found a modest increase in risk.

The authors of the BMJ study point to a dilemma over antidepressant use during pregnancy. “If antidepressants increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder, it would be reasonable to warn women about this possibility. However, if the association actually reflects the risk of autism spectrum disorder related to the non-genetic effects of severe depression during pregnancy, treatment may reduce the risk.”

But some researchers, the New York Times writes, are “more inclined to draw a line” between prenatal drug exposure and the autism risk. Dr. Adam C. Urato, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Tufts University medical school, says that a number of animal studies have shown that drug exposure during development leads to changes in the brain. “And why,” Dr. Urato asks, “should it surprise us that medications that can change brain chemistry and function might alter the development of the brain and behavior?”  Dr. Urato believes the risks of antidepressant use during pregnancy outweigh what he sees as limited benefits, the Times said.