A growing number of studies has shown that the prenatal environment is a key link to whether or not a child develops autism. Last week, a study linked polycystic ovary syndrome to autism spectrum disorder, and a new study, published today in JAMA Pediatrics, is now linking antidepressant use during pregnancy to the increased risk of having a child with autism.
Researchers in Montreal reviewed data from more than 145,000 pregnancies between the time of conception until the children were 10 years old. Women who took antidepressants during their second or third trimesters had an 87 percent higher risk of having a child diagnosed with autism than mothers who did not take antidepressants.
That risk was particularly clear among women who took a popular type of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which are the most common type of antidepressant taken by pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers also found that women who took two or more types of medicine to fight depression were four times more likely to have a child later diagnosed with autism than women who took one medication, USA Today reports.
"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," lead researcher Anick Bérard, PhD, said in a statement.
Those processes include the creation of links between brain cells. There was no association between moms who took antidepressants in the first three months of pregnancy and later autism, which might be because the second two trimesters are more crucial to brain development.
The study had some limitations, because it didn't include babies who were born prematurely, which is linked to autism, and it only noted the prescription for antidepressants, not how many pills the moms actually took. It is important to note that women shouldn't stop taking their antidepressants just because one study showed a link. Other studies have found no such connection, and the vast majority of pregnant women who take SSRIs don't end up having children with autism.
And if depression goes untreated, the consequences can be extremely dangerous. "We're not saying, 'do not treat depression.' We will never say that. It's a very severe and debilitating condition and is associated with a lot of co-morbidities," Dr. Bérard told the New York Times. "Of course treat depression, but maybe treat it differently, at least during pregnancy."
The bottom line: More research needs to be done on this subject. In the meantime, the best thing to do is speak with your doctor about the best course of action for your specific situation.